Your liver is the largest organ inside your body. It helps your body digest food, store energy and remove poisons. Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. It has many causes, including viral infection.
In hepatitis B, the virus infects the liver cells and causes an immune response which can lead to liver damage over time.
How do I get hepatitis B?
Most people with hepatitis B become infected at the time of their birth or in early childhood. This is usually the case in places where hepatitis B is widespread.
Some people get hepatitis B when they are older. It can happen through exposure to infected blood and other bodily fluids in the following situations:
- sharing needles and other injecting drug equipment
- sharing razors, toothbrushes or nail clippers
- sexual contact (either heterosexual or homosexual)
- tattooing with unsterilised needles and equipment
- close family contact with someone with hepatitis B
- being born to a mother with hepatitis B (although this is very rare in Australia as babies are vaccinated soon after birth)
- accidental exposure such as a needle stick injury or being splashed with infected blood or body fluid
- blood transfusion – this is now very rare as blood in Australia is screened for hepatitis B
You cannot catch hepatitis B through being coughed or sneezed on by infected people or by consuming contaminated food and drink. You cannot catch the virus from saliva, breast milk or tears.
You can prevent hepatitis B by being vaccinated.
How do I know if I have hepatitis B?
A diagnosis of hepatitis B infection is made using blood tests.
Because many people do not have symptoms when they get hepatitis B they may never be diagnosed. That’s why screening for hepatitis B is recommended in a number of people including:
- people at higher risk
- people who have injected drugs
- men who have sex with men
- people born in areas of the world where hepatitis B is widespread
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
- people about to have chemotherapy or other treatment that can surpress the immune system
- people with HIV or hepatitis C
- pregnant women
If you think you have been exposed to infected blood or body fluids, see a doctor as soon as possible. There are treatments which can reduce your risk of developing the infection, if given shortly after exposure.
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Last reviewed: May 2018