Hepatitis B

What is hepatitis B?

Hepatitis is a general term for inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis B, also known as hep B, is an infection of the liver that is caused by the hepatitis B virus. Hepatitis B is spread via blood-to-blood or sexual contact.

Am I at risk?

The most common time people get hepatitis B is early in life. Babies can get hepatitis B from their mother. This can happen before or during birth. Hepatitis B has also been contracted from:

  • having vaginal, anal or oral sex without a condom
  • Unsterilised medical, dental and cosmetic procedures (particularly in countries with low levels of infection control).
  • Unsterilised tattooing and body piercing
  • sharing needles, syringes or other injecting equipment, including spoons
  • sharing toothbrushes, razors or nail files.
Is hepatitis B common?

An estimated 3,000 Canberrans are infected with hepatitis B, and many of them don’t know they are infected.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis B?

The most common symptoms of hepatitis B are feeling less hungry, muscle and joint pain, nausea, discomfort around the abdomen and yellowing of the eyes and skin. But many people with hepatitis B don’t have any symptoms at all, and symptoms may not appear until 15 years or more after someone was initially exposed to the virus.

Getting tested

Why get tested for hepatitis B?

Even though you could have hepatitis B without any noticeable symptoms, hepatitis B could be causing damage to your liver – so it’s important to get tested if you think you could be at risk. If you have hepatitis B but don’t get tested and treated, you could also spread it to friends and family via blood-to-blood or sexual contact.

What does the test involve?

You need to ask your doctor to do a hepatitis B test. It is not part of normal blood tests done by your doctor. You need to ask for a special set of tests. You can show your doctor this resource on hepatitis B tests and how to make sense of the results: Hep B test

List of hepatitis B prescribers in Canberra and surrounds

For hepatitis B treatment in ACT, do a search and then phone one of your local doctors. Ask for the name of their doctor who prescribes hepatitis B drugs. Then call back and make an appointment with that doctor. This way, when you arrive at the surgery, you won’t need to tell the reception staff that you have hepatitis B: ASHM Prescriber Map

Hepatitis B vaccination

Should I get the vaccine?

All babies should get vaccinated against hepatitis B, as well as some adults who are at greater risk of getting it.

Children born in Australia after 1 May 2000 should have had the hepatitis B vaccine just after birth. Babies normally get the first dose within the first 24 hours. They will also get doses at 2, 4 and 6 months of age. If you’re not sure if you got it when you were a baby, talk to your doctor. They can check if you had it using a blood test.

How do I get the vaccine?

You can get the hepatitis B vaccine from your GP. You may also be able to get it from other health services. Most people need 3 doses of the vaccine over 6 months. You must get all of the doses to make sure you are safe from hepatitis B.

If you are at greater risk of getting hepatitis B, you should have a blood test before getting the vaccine. This will check whether you already have hepatitis B or if you are already immune.

Are there any side effects of the vaccine?

Most people don’t get any side effects from the vaccine. But some people feel pain in the spot where they had the vaccine. Some people also have a mild fever after getting it.

You cannot get hepatitis B from the vaccine.

How much does the hepatitis B vaccine cost?

The cost of the hepatitis B vaccine varies around the country. Some people can get the vaccine for free:

  • babies
  • people under 20 years old
  • refugees and humanitarian entrants
  • people who live with someone who has hepatitis B

You will need to pay for the cost of seeing the doctor to get your vaccine, unless the doctor bulk bills. Alternatively, Hepatitis ACT is able to cover the cost of your vaccine if you are undergoing financial difficulties.

Monitoring and treatment of hepatitis B

I have hepatitis B. Now what?

If you have hepatitis B, you should visit your doctor every 6-12 months for liver check-ups. This is important because hepatitis B can damage your liver and cause scarring, liver failure and liver cancer. And this can happen even if you feel well.

When you go to your doctor for a liver check-up, they will do some tests to check for damage to your liver. This helps to work out if you need to start or change treatment.

It is best to get a liver check-up at least once a year, or more often if your doctor advises it.

What tests would the doctor want to do?

The doctor may choose a wide range of tests to keep an eye on your liver and the hepatitis B. These could be:

  • Viral load test (HBV DNA)
  • Liver Function Tests
  • Ultrasound
  • Fibroscan®
What treatment and medication do I need?

Medicines for hepatitis B help you live well with the virus. They are not a cure. But they will make you much less likely to get liver disease or liver cancer. Many people who have chronic hepatitis B do not have any signs of liver damage, and will not need medicine. It is important to watch for liver damage by getting liver check-ups every 6 to 12 months.

If you have signs of liver damage you should think about taking medicines for hepatitis B. There are lots of reasons why you might decide to do this. Talk to your doctor about whether starting treatment is right for you.

There are a few options for medicines that treat chronic hepatitis B. You can get them through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). So if you have a Medicare card, you can get them at low cost.

What does hepatitis B medicine do?

The medicines work by slowing down or stopping the multiplying of hepatitis B virus in the body. This greatly lowers your chance of getting serious liver disease. In some cases it even allows your liver to fix some of the damage so it works better. It is very unlikely that any of these medicines will cure hepatitis B. But you still need to keep taking them to keep your liver healthy.