What is hepatitis B

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a virus that lives and multiplies in the liver. When the body tries to get rid of the virus, the liver becomes inflamed, which can lead to liver damage.

There are two types of hepatitis B, acute and chronic.

Acute hepatitis B clears within six months. Most adults will clear the virus in this time. Some people may experience:

  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • tiredness
  • jaundice (yellowing of eyes and skin)
  • joint and stomach ache.

Chronic hepatitis B is a life-long illness. Hepatitis B is chronic if it has been in the body for more than six months. It occurs when the body cannot get rid of the virus, so it stays inside the body and can eventually lead to severe liver disease and liver cancer if left untreated. Chronic hepatitis B usually has no symptoms and that is why it is so dangerous.

Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood and other body fluids entering the body of someone who is not infected. People can spread hepatitis B without knowing they are infected. Hepatitis B infection can occur:

  • During childbirth –from the mother who unknowingly passes on the virus to the baby during delivery.
  • Sharing personal items that may have blood on them such as razors or toothbrushes.
  • Having unprotected sex.
  • Using unsterilised needles or equipment.
  • Direct contact with infected blood.

“Hepatitis B is NOT spread by sharing food, drinks and eating utensils with an infected person.”

Hepatitis B infection contracted early in life leads to a higher possibility of chronic infection. It occurs when the body cannot get rid of the virus, so it stays inside the body and can eventually lead to severe liver disease and liver cancer if left untreated.

Chronic infection with the hepatitis B virus is the most common cause of liver cancer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia and among Australian residents born in Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Korea, Hong Kong and Macau. There is a much higher chance that these people will be diagnosed with liver cancer. However, many people may not know they have hepatitis B virus because it doesn’t often show or cause symptoms.

For other Australian-born people, hepatitis B infection generally occurs in adolescence or adulthood. While the disease leads to symptoms in many people, they eventually clear the virus and do not progress to chronic infection and life-threatening disease.