What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is a term that refers to inflammation or swelling of the liver. The word is derived from the Greek word for liver (hepar) and the suffix -itis, which denotes inflammation.
Hepatitis usually occurs as a result of viral infection, or due to the liver being exposed to harmful substances such as excess alcohol. In some serious cases, chronic hepatitis can lead to permanent scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver cancer and liver failure.
There are several different types of hepatitis, but the most well-known are A, B and C, as well as hepatitis caused by alcoholism. The most common of these is hepatitis C (the NHS estimates that 215,000 people in the UK are infected with it), which can also be the most dangerous as the majority of people who contract it will remain infected for a number of years. Hepatitis A and B, by contrast, can clear up on their own within a couple of months. There is also currently no vaccination for hepatitis C (although there are medicines that can treat it), while there are vaccinations for types A and B.
Hepatitis B is a virus spread through bodily fluids that infects the liver, and can cause flu-like symptoms, nausea and jaundice. Hepatitis B commonly stays in the body for one to three months, but in some cases can become chronic, with the virus remaining in the body for six months or longer. Around a fifth of people with chronic hepatitis B will go on to develop cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), which can lead to more severe conditions such as liver cancer.
How is hepatitis B spread?
Hepatitis B is contracted by coming into contact with the bodily fluids or blood of an infected person. This means that you put yourself at risk of hepatitis B if you have unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, or share needles with somebody who may be infected.
Hepatitis B is also considered to be an occupational health hazard for many people, including police officers, health workers and laboratory technicians who handle blood.
Mothers can also pass hepatitis B onto their babies during labour - however this can be avoided in the majority of cases if the hepatitis B vaccination is administered soon after birth.
You can also contract hepatitis B by:
- undergoing medical or dental treatment in a developing country where equipment has not been properly sterilised
- undergoing a blood transfusion in a country where blood donations are not tested for hepatitis B
- getting a tattoo or a body piercing in an unlicensed place or a developing country
- sharing razors, toothbrushes or towels with an infected person
What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?
Because hepatitis B is not always a chronic condition, some people can contract the virus and fight it off without experiencing any symptoms at all. The danger of this, however, is that the virus can still be passed onto others during this period.
Typically, the symptoms of hepatitis B will take between 40 days and five months to develop after you have contracted the virus. Most commonly, hepatitis B presents with flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, aches and pains and a high temperature. Other symptoms include:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- nausea and vomiting
More severe indications of the virus occur when there is inflammation of the liver, and include:
- abdominal pain
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- dark urine
- pale faeces
Chronic hepatitis B (that lasts for 6 months or longer) is associated with much milder symptoms that tend to come and go. The danger associated with chronic hepatitis is that it can lead to cirrhosis, which can cause further, potentially life-threatening complications.
If you notice any of the above symptoms, or if you think you may have contracted hepatitis B from an infected person, you should seek advice from a doctor.
How is hepatitis B treated?
There is no cure for hepatitis B, and no specific treatment for the short-term form of the infection. Generally, the symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen - however if the symptoms are more severe, your doctor may offer you prescription painkillers or anti-nausea medicines.
In the case of chronic hepatitis B, you may need to take medicines to suppress the virus, in order to prevent further damage to your liver. It is also likely that you will need to have regular check-ups and blood tests to assess the damage that has been done to your liver, and to re-evaluate your treatment. To learn more about the treatments available, visit the NHS website.
The hepatitis B vaccination
The vaccination works by stimulating your body to fight the hepatitis B virus, and should provide protection against the infection for at least 5 years. You will need three doses of the vaccine over 6 months.
The hepatitis B vaccination is available for free on the NHS to people in at-risk groups - although your GP may charge you if you are having it as a travel vaccination.
Our service offers the hepatitis B vaccine, along with a hepatitis B immunity test and a vaccine booster (recommended every five years for people who continue to be at risk of infection). You can also get free advice on hepatitis B from one of our NHS registered doctors. Click the link below to visit our occupational health clinic and learn more.