What is Hepatitis B?

A brief history of viral hepatitis
Several different viruses can cause hepatitis. The most common are hepatitis A, B and C. These viruses pass from person to person through different means, cause damage to the liver in different ways and have different effects on your health.

All of these viruses can cause an acute (short-term) disease, with symptoms lasting several weeks – including yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), dark urine, extreme fatigue, nausea and vomiting, and possibly abdominal pain. Some of these viruses can also cause long-term (chronic) problems.

What is hepatitis B
This used to be called serum hepatitis and is sometimes called hepatitis B or HBV. Generally, hepatitis B initially makes you sicker than hepatitis A and it can sometimes take several months to get better. Only about a third of people get symptoms in the acute stage.

About 10% of people with hepatitis B are unable to clear the virus from their body. This means they will progress into a state of chronic (long-term) infection of their liver. In Western Europe and North America most transmission occurs during young adulthood. This is due to sexual activity, needle sharing, occupational exposure and travelling. If you belong to an ethnic group from a country with high rates of infection you are at a statistically higher risk of contracting hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B is the major infectious occupational hazard of health workers, so most of them have received hepatitis B vaccine. There is a high prevalence of hepatitis B among gay men, so the hepatitis B vaccine is usually made available to them from a sexual health centre. You cannot contract hepatitis B from contaminated food or water and it cannot be spread casually in the workplace. If you are a health care worker with hepatitis B, you must discuss this with your occupational health department.

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