What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis A (HAV)

Hepatitis A is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver; however it does not lead to long-term liver disease. It is an acute (short-term) infection and symptoms usually last for one to three weeks; some people, especially young children, may have no symptoms at all. Once you have had hepatitis A and developed antibodies, you have a life-long immunity from re-infection to this virus (having the vaccination will also give you immunity).

How do you get hep A?

  • From person to person by contaminated faeces (faecal-oral contact)
  • Through contaminated food and water
  • Through contaminated hand-to-mouth contact

For Example:

  • The unwashed hands of a person with hepatitis A coming into contact with food
  • Oral/anal sex
  • Failure to wash your hands properly after handling nappies, used condoms, linen or soiled towels
  • Travel to developing countries (where there is a higher risk of exposure to hep A)

Symptoms

  • Aches and pains
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin
  • Light coloured faeces and dark urine

Prevention

  • Vaccination
  • Washing your hands with soap and water after going to the toilet; before eating or handling food; after handling soiled or used objects such as nappies and condoms
  • Seek advice on food and water risks and consider vaccination when travelling to developing countries

Hepatitis B (HBV)

Hepatitis B is a virus that can cause damage to your liver. It is sometimes also called ‘hep B’ or ‘HBV’.

If you have hepatitis B for less than six months, it is called ‘acute’. If you have it for longer than six months, it is called ‘chronic’. What happens when you are exposed to hepatitis B depends on how old you are when you get it.

95% of adults who get hepatitis B will ‘clear’ the virus and not develop chronic hep B. This means your immune system will fight the virus and get rid of it from your body. You will no longer experience symptoms, you will not be able to pass hepatitis B on to other people and will be immune to hepatitis B in the future.

However, 90% of newborn babies who have hepatitis B will go on to have chronic hep B. This is because the baby’s immune system is not yet mature and doesn’t recognise the hepatitis B virus as something it should try and clear from the body. The risk of getting hep B can be reduced by giving the baby the vaccination and HBIg (hepatitis B immunoglobulin) at birth.

How do you get hep B?

  • Blood-to-blood contact
  • Unprotected sexual contact
  • From a mother with hepatitis B to her newborn baby (vertical transmission)

Transmission examples:

  • Not using a condom during sex (vaginal or anal sex)
  • Contaminated blood transfusions, blood products, medical or dental equipment (this is an issue in many countries, but is rare in Australia)
  • Sharing injecting drug equipment (including syringes, spoons, water, filters and tourniquets)
  • Unsterile cultural or traditional practices that involve blood or skin penetration
  • Unsterile tattooing or piercing
  • Sharing toothbrushes, razors and tweezers
  • Blood-to-blood contact through open wounds
  • Needle-stick injuries (getting hep B this way is rare)
  • Oral sex where they are open cuts, ulcers, or sores in the mouth

How do you know if you have hep B?

A blood test can show if you have had hepatitis B in the past, or if you have it now. To get tested or find out more information, contact your local doctor, Sexual Health Clinic, or Aboriginal Medical Service, or contact us.

Symptoms

  • General aches and pains
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin
  • Light coloured faeces and dark urine

How can you prevent getting hep B?

  • Get vaccinated. This is the best protection
  • Avoid blood-to-blood contact
  • If you are pregnant and have hep B, talk to your doctor about vaccinations and HBIg for your baby at birth
  • Never share injecting drug equipment (including needles, water, spoons, filters and tourniquets) and dispose of these safely
  • Cover open wounds or cuts with bandaids and clean up any blood spills with disposable gloves and bleach
  • Always get your tattoos and piercings done by a professional who uses sterile equipment
  • Don’t share items that may have traces of blood on them like tweezers, razors or toothbrushes
  • It is safe to breastfeed but if your nipples are cracked or bleeding you should stop temporarily
  • If you are not immunised and you have sexual or blood contact with someone that may have hepatitis B, you should talk to your doctor or clinic about getting vaccinated and HBIg. HBIg can help your body fight hep B is you have just been exposed to the virus. You should get the HBIg injection within 72 hours of possible contact.

Treatment

Some people with chronic (long-term) hepatitis B may benefit from treatment. Ask your doctor for a referral to a liver specialist to discuss whether treatment is right for you, and what type of treatment this should be.

Hepatitis C (HCV)

Hepatitis C is a blood borne virus. For transmission to occur hepatitis C positive blood must directly enter the bloodstream of another person. Hepatitis C can be treated and cured.

How do you get hep C?

  • Blood-to-blood contact
  • From a mother with chronic hepatitis C to her newborn baby (approximately 1-5% risk of transmission – low risk)
  • Sexual transmission is unlikely unless there is blood-to-blood contact

For Example:

  • Skin penetration (e.g. tattooing and piercing) with unsterile equipment
  • Use of contaminated injecting equipment when injecting drugs
  • Receiving blood products prior to February 1990 in Australia

Symptoms

  • General aches and pains
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain and discomfort
  • Loss of appetite
  • Light coloured faces and dark urine

Prevention

  • Avoid blood-to-blood contact
  • Avoid sharing personal items (e.g. toothbrushes and razors) which may allow the transfer of blood from one person to another
  • Use gloves when giving someone first aid or cleaning up blood and bodily fluids
  • Seek medical advice for any accidental exposure

Treatment

New, highly effective treatments are available for hepatitis C.

Find out more