Hepatitis B

What is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is a viral disease that attacks the liver and may cause jaundice (yellow skin and eyes). In most people the virus clears up within 6 months and they become immune. But some people (about one in ten of those who get hepatitis B as an adult) remain infectious and may go on to develop cirrhosis or cancer of the liver over a period of years. Follow up is important to detect early changes and treat when necessary.

Hepatitis B is preventable by using a safe and effective vaccine.

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How do people get Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is caused by a virus which has been found in many body fluids, e.g. sweat, tears, saliva, semen and vaginal secretions. Infected blood is the most common way that the virus is spread from one person infected with hepatitis B to another. For hepatitis B to spread from one person to another there must be contact between infected body fluids and cuts or broken skin or mucous membranes.

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Examples of how hepatitis B can be spread include

  • During sex with an infected partner.
  • From an infected mother to her newborn baby during delivery.
  • Users of injected drugs can infect others through sharing needles.
  • By sharing contaminated needles or other drug injecting equipment.
  • Through a blood transfusion in a country where blood is not tested for hepatitis B virus. All blood in the Ireland is tested.

If you have had other types of hepatitis, you can still get hepatitis B.

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Who is most at risk of getting Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is caused by a virus which has been found in many body fluids, e.g. sweat, tears, saliva, semen and vaginal secretions but infected blood is the most common way that the virus is transmitted from one person to another. This is why some groups are at a higher risk of catching the disease, e.g.

  • babies born to infected mothers,
  • intravenous drug users,
  • household contacts and sexual partners of infected people,
  • people who change sexual partners,
  • men who have sex with men,
  • individuals at high risk due to medical conditions,
  • health care professionals,
  • Gardaí and Rescue Service personnel,
  • prison staff and employees of security companies
  • people with a learning disability who attend an institution
  • families adopting or fostering children from countries where hepatits B is very common
  • people travelling to parts of the world where hepatitis B is very common.

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What are the symptoms of Hepatitis B?
Some people who have acute hepatitis B have no symptoms at all and others may have a severe illness that requires hospitalisation.

Symptoms that may occur include

  • Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes),
  • Itchy skin,
  • Fatigue and tiredness,
  • Poor appetite and weight loss,
  • Diarrhoea or Vomiting,
  • Joint pains

The illness may develop 2-6 months after injection with the virus but usually develops within 2-3 months. The virus may be found in the body before symptoms appear and may persist for several months.

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How does Hepatitis B illness develop?

Hepatitis B may cause long term infection. This is because some people do not clear the virus from their system and become chronic carriers for life. They have an ongoing risk of infecting others.

Less than 10% of those infected as adults and approximately 90% of those infected as babies will become chronic carriers for life.

About 1 in 3 chronic carriers will go on to develop liver disease which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

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How serious is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B can cause long term infection that leads to liver disease. This can lead to death from liver cancer or cirrhosis. About 1 in 3 chronic carriers will develop cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Hepatitis B is particularly likely to cause long term infection in babies and children.

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How can Hepatitis B be prevented?
There is a safe and effective vaccine available to prevent Hepatitis B and this should be given to anyone at risk of infection.

People who are infected with hepatitis B should wear condoms for sex and should not share razors, toothbrushes, or any object that has been contaminated with blood.

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Who should get Hepatitis B vaccine?

Hepatitis B vaccine is given to all babies as part of the 6 in 1 vaccine that is given at 2, 4 and 6 months of age.

Vaccination is also recommended for people at risk of infection. This includes:

  • babies born to infected mothers,
  • intravenous drug users,
  • household contacts and sexual partners of infected people,
  • people who change sexual partners,
  • men who have sex with men,
  • individuals at high risk due to medical conditions,
  • health care professionals,
  • Gardaí and Rescue Service personnel,
  • prison staff and employees of security companies
  • people with a learning disability who attend an institution
  • families adopting or fostering children from countries where hepatits B is very common
  • people travelling to parts of the world where hepatitis B is very common.

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Who should not get hepatitis b vaccine?

Very rarely someone may have a very severe life threatening reaction (anaphylaxis) to one or more of the contents of the vaccine. They should not receive hepatits B vaccine.

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What is a Hepatitis B immunisation course?

Hepatitis B immunisation course consists of three doses of vaccine. These are given at 0, 1 and 6 months. The vaccine is given in to the muscle at the top of the arm. A blood test will also be taken 2 months after the full course of immunisation to make certain that the immunisation has been effective. If a person has had a course of the three Hepatitis B injections followed by a blood test showing that they were immune, then they do not need to get the vaccine again.

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What to expect after hepatitis B vaccine?

Hepatitis B vaccine is very safe. The commonest reactions are soreness and redness at the infection site.

Very occasionally fever, rash, and flu-like symptoms may occur.

If the person intending to be vaccinated is pregnant or thinks they may be pregnant, it is advisable to discuss this with your family doctor before availing of the vaccination.

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Where can I find out more?
You can ask for further information regarding immunisation from your G.P., Public Health Nurse, S.T.I. (Sexually Transmitted Infections) Clinic or Local HSE Office.

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This page was updated on 19/04/2016