July 2012

What Is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). While most adults with hepatitis B will recover fully from the infection, some people may become chronic carriers of the virus, especially if infected at an early age. Chronic infection may cause permanent damage to the liver including chronic liver disease and liver cancer.

How Do You Get Hepatitis B?

You can get hepatitis B through contact with blood and other body fluids such as semen, vaginal secretions or saliva from an infected person. It can be spread through sex (including anal/oral sex); sharing needles or razors; or improperly sterilized medical, tattooing or body piercing equipment. An infected mother can pass the virus to her baby at birth. Hepatitis B is not spread by water, food or by casual contact such as coughing, handshakes, shared eating utensils, toilet seats or hugging.

Who Is at Risk of Getting Hepatitis B?

Some people are at higher risk of hepatitis B infection, including those who have:

  • Sexual contact with someone who is infected with hepatitis B
  • People who have multiple sexual partners
  • People who share contaminated injection drug equipment
  • People who share personal items including razors, toothbrushes and manicure tools
  • Babies born to mothers who have hepatitis B
  • Children and household members of someone with hepatitis B
  • Anyone whose occupation involves increased exposure to blood or body fluids
  • People from or who travel to parts of the world where hepatitis B is relatively more common

What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis B Infection?

Some people may have no symptoms at all, while others may have:

  • Flu-like symptoms (fever, muscle aches, fatigue)
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes)
  • Dark urine

How Soon Do the Symptoms Appear?

Symptoms appear within a few months, usually 60 to 90 days after contact with hepatitis B, but the range can be from 45 to 160 days.

How Is Hepatitis B Diagnosed?

Hepatitis B can be diagnosed through a blood test. It can be ordered by your doctor.

How Can the Spread of Hepatitis B Be Prevented?

There are many things you can do to prevent getting hepatitis B or to prevent the spread to others:

  • Get the hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine is given in 2 or 3 doses over 6 months. Speak to your doctor for more information or see our Hepatitis B vaccine fact sheet.
  • Adopt safer sex practices including always using condoms.
  • Never share needles, syringes or drug paraphernalia.
  • Carefully investigate personal service settings to ensure that sterile equipment is used when receiving tattoos or body piercing.
  • Do not share personal care products like razors, toothbrushes or manicure tools.
  • Use protective equipment such as gloves to prevent contact with other people’s blood and body fluids.
  • See your doctor as soon as possible if you may have been exposed to hepatitis B.
  • Do not donate blood, organs, tissues or sperm if you have hepatitis B or are awaiting test results for hepatitis B.
  • Follow up with routine prenatal care for each pregnancy so that newborns can receive appropriate care if required.
  • Grade 7 students┬ácan get the hepatitis B vaccine for free through Toronto Public Health.

How Can Hepatitis B Be Treated?

Chronic hepatitis B can be treated with antiviral medication if needed. Certain lifestyle modifications are needed as well as monitoring for disease progression. Your physician will assess the need for treatment and referral to a specialist if necessary.

More Information

Call Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600 (TTY at 416-392-0658) or speak to your healthcare provider.