Hepatitis B is a disease caused by a virus that infects the liver.
Half of all people with hepatitis B don’t know they have it because they don’t feel sick. But they can still pass the disease to others. Some will become carriers and have the virus in their blood and other body fluids (like semen) for the rest of their lives.
In other cases, hepatitis B makes people very sick with fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, and yellow skin and eyes (jaundice). They can be sick for weeks or months. Many people will get better and become immune (protected from the illness) for life. Some will recover but remain infected and become carriers.
Those who become infected at a younger age are more likely to become carriers. 90% of infants infected before 1 year of age will be infected for life.
Carriers can pass the virus to other people and are at high risk for getting liver disease, liver failure, and cancer of the liver. There is no cure for hepatitis B, but treatment can sometimes decrease the amount of virus in the blood and body secretions. It can also prevent some of the other problems caused by the disease.
How common is hepatitis B?
In Canada, there is now less than 1,000 new infections per year, but many more people are living with the infection as carriers. Most new cases now come from sharing needles or having sex with a carrier. Many babies used to get hepatitis B at birth, but this doesn’t happen very often anymore. Pregnant women are tested for the disease. Babies whose mothers have the disease get the vaccine and hepatitis B immune globulin (a shot with a large amount of antibodies) soon after they are born.
In other parts of the world, hepatitis B is more common and still infects many babies. If you travel to China, Southeast Asia or some parts of Africa, you may be at higher risk, especially if you have sex with local people, use drugs with a needle, or need a blood transfusion.
How can you tell if you have hepatitis B?
Your doctor will have to do a blood test. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned that you may already be infected, even if you feel well.
How is hepatitis B spread?
It spreads from person to person through body fluids, such as:
- semen, and
- vaginal fluids.
It can spread:
- through contact with blood or body fluids if these get into a cut or break in the skin or into the eyes or mouth.
- during sexual intercourse.
- from sharing needles during drug use
- from infected needles in a tattoo shop.
- when you have your ears or other parts of your body pierced.
- from sharing toothbrushes or razors (these may have tiny amounts of blood on them).
- from a mother to her baby when she is pregnant or giving birth.
What can you do to stop the spread of hepatitis B?
In the home:
- If someone in your house has hepatitis B, everyone else should get the shot.
- If a person with hepatitis B is bleeding, be careful not to touch their blood or any blood-tinged body fluids unless you are immune.
In a child care, school, or home setting:
- If someone is bleeding, be careful not to touch the blood with your bare hands.
- Wear gloves to clean up any spills of blood or blood-tinged body fluid.
During sexual intercourse:
- Always wear a condom when you have sex.
If you are drug user:
- Don’t share needles. Always use a clean needle.
More information from the CPS:
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
- Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee
Last Updated: August 2015