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    Home > Adult Immunisation > Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B

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What is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a viral disease that attacks the liver and may cause jaundice (yellow skin and eyes). In most people the virus clears up within 6 months and they become immune. But some people (about one in ten of those who get Hepatitis B as an adult) remain infectious and may go on to develop cirrhosis or cancer of the liver over a period of years. Follow up is important to detect early changes and treat when necessary.

Hepatitis B is preventable by using a safe and effective vaccine.

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How do people get Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by a virus which has been found in many body fluids, e.g. sweat, tears, saliva, semen and vaginal secretions but infected blood is the most common way that the virus is transmitted from one person to another. For transmission to occur there must be contact between the infectious secretions and cut or abraded skin or mucous membranes.

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How is Hepatitis B spread?

  • During sex with an infected partner.
  • From an infected mother to her newborn baby during delivery.
  • Users of injected drugs can infect others through sharing needles.
  • By sharing contaminated needles or other drug injecting equipment.
  • Through a blood transfusion in a country where blood is not tested for hepatitis B virus. All blood in the Ireland is tested.
  • If you have had other types of hepatitis, you can still get hepatitis B.

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What are the symptoms of Hepatitis B?

Some people who have acute Hepatitis B have no symptoms at all and others may have a severe illness that requires hospitalisation.

Symptoms that may occur include

  • Jaundice (Yellow skin and eyes),
  • Itchy skin,
  • Fatigue and tiredness,
  • Poor appetite and weight loss,
  • Diarrhoea or Vomiting,
  • Joint pains

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Who is most at risk of getting Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by a virus which has been found in many body fluids, e.g. sweat, tears, saliva, semen and vaginal secretions but infected blood is the most common way that the virus is transmitted from one person to another. This is why some groups are at a higher risk of catching the disease, e.g.

  • babies born to infected mothers,
  • intravenous drug users,
  • household contacts and sexual partners of infected people,
  • people who change sexual partners,
  • men who have sex with men
  • Health Care Professionals,
  • Gardaí and Rescue Service personnel,
  • People with a learning disability who attend an institution.

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What is the incubation period for Hepatitis B?

Illness may develop 2 to 6 months after exposure, usually within 2-3 months. The virus may be found before symptoms appear and may persist for several months.

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How does Hepatitis B illness develop?

Some people may not clear the virus from their system and become chronic carriers for life with an ongoing risk of infecting others. Less than 10% of those infected as adults and approximately 90% of those infected in infancy will go on to develop a chronic form of the disease.

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How serious is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B can cause long term infection that leads to liver disease. This can lead to death from liver cancer or cirrhosis. About 1 in 3 chronic carriers will develop cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Hepatitis B is particularly likely to cause long term infection in babies and children.

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How can Hepatitis B be prevented?

There is a safe and effective vaccine available to prevent Hepatitis B and this should be given to all at risk of infection. The Department of Health and National Immunisation Committee have recommended that people at higher risk of getting the infection should be immunised.

Prevention of infection is focused on avoiding contact with blood and body fluids, i.e., wearing gloves, hand washing, never reusing needles and avoidance of injury.

Those who are Hepatitis B carriers should wear condoms for sex and should not share razors, toothbrushes, or any object that has been contaminated with blood.

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What is a Hepatitis B immunisation course?

Hepatitis B immunisation course consists of three doses of vaccine. These are given at 0, 1 and 6 months. The vaccine is given in to the muscle at the top of the arm. A blood test will also be taken 2 months after the full course of immunisation to make certain that the immunisation has been effective. If a person has had a course of the three Hepatitis B injections followed by a blood test showing that they were immune, then they do not need to get the vaccine again.

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Is Hepatitis B vaccine safe?

Hepatitis B vaccine is very safe. The commonest reactions are soreness and redness at the infection site.

Very occasionally fever, rash, and flu-like symptoms may occur.

If the person intending to be vaccinated is pregnant or thinks they may be pregnant, it is advisable to discuss this with your family doctor before availing of the vaccination.

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Where can I find out more?

You can ask for further information regarding immunisation from your G.P., Public Health Nurse, S.T.I. (Sexually Transmitted Infections) Clinic or Local HSE Office.

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This section was updated on 8th January 2014
Health Protection Surveillance Centre The Department of Health and Children Irish College Of General Practitioner