What it is

Hepatitis B is a highly contagious virus that can cause a serious infection of the liver. An infection can occur through contact with infected blood, semen and other bodily fluids. This can occur by having sex with an infected person, sharing drug-use equipment, or from an infected mother to newborn.

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The symptoms

Some people with hepatitis B never get symptoms and may fight off the virus without realizing they had it. But even if you don't feel sick, you can still pass the infection on to someone else.

Common signs and symptoms of a hepatitis B may include:

  • Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, fatigue or nausea
  • Dark urine
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain in your abdomen
  • Clay-coloured stools
  • Jaundice (yellowish colour of the skin and eyes)

These symptoms will usually pass within one to three months (acute hepatitis B), although occasionally the infection can last for six months or more (chronic hepatitis B).

What it can do to you

Most people with hepatitis B fight off the infection. Once you've been infected, you can't get it again. However, about 3% to 10% of people never recover and will have it for life. These people are called "carriers". They will continue passing the infection on to others, and may develop cancer of the liver.

How you prevent it

Practice safer sex, use condoms and lower the risk of getting hepatitis B or other STIs.

You can also protect yourself by getting the hepatitis B vaccine.

If you find out that you have hepatitis B, your partner(s) need to be told that they could have an infection - even if there aren't any symptoms. If you have concerns about telling your partner(s), contact a public health nurse.

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The public health nurse can suggest ways to handle the situation or they will contact your partner(s) for you. Of course, your name will be kept confidential.

One of the ways you can get hepatitis B is from having unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex with an infected person, since hepatitis B is spread through blood or bodily fluids.

Hepatitis B is highly contagious because it can be spread in so many other ways. Sharing needles, tattoo equipment or anything that cuts the skin and causes bleeding can transmit the infection. Plus, a pregnant woman can transfer it to her baby.

If you think you have it

If you think you have hepatitis B, visit your health care provider or sexual health clinic to get tested immediately.

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Get tested

A special blood test is available through your health care provider or a sexual health clinic.

Many women assume STI tests are also performed during their regular Pap exam, but this isn't a case. Be sure to ask your health care provider to test you for STIs - asking is the only way to know whether you are receiving the right tests.

Get treated

There's no treatment that can kill the virus, but there is a hepatitis B vaccine available that can protect you from getting the infection. Talk to your health care provider or sexual health clinic to see if this vaccine is right for you.

Follow up

It is important to see if you are still infectious (a carrier). If you are a carrier, you should see your health care provider or sexual health care clinic at regular intervals.

If you decide to talk to your partner(s) yourself, learn how to talk comfortably about it.