1.7 Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver and is caused by a virus. When hepatitis B turns chronic, the illness can become very serious and can, in the long run, even lead to cancer of the liver. Hepatitis B is very contagious.

Do you always get sick when infected?

Hepatitis B can be very insidious as symptoms do not always occur. Someone could be infected, unknowinly and unwillingly infect others.

How long is the incubation period?

After initial infection, it normally takes two to six months before one gets sick.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms vary from fatigue, lack of appetite, muscle and joint pains to fever, apathy and sometimes itchiness. The illness can also produce colour changes in eyes, skin, urine, (tea colour) and faeces (pale colour).

Can hepatitis B be cured?

In most cases, yes. In 90% to 95% of all adults, the virus leaves the body by itself. Someone who had acute hepatitis B once, is immune to this disease for the rest of his/her life. But in 5% to 10%, the virus stays dormant and develops into chronic hepatitis B. People with chronic hepatitis B can infect others for the remainder of their lifes and in addition, stand a greater chance to develop cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. Cirrhosis of the liver develops if the liver tries to cure the infection and in doing so leaves scars. This eventually turns into a disease itself: the scars replace the healthy tissue which results in liver functions failing. Ultimately one can fall into a coma and die. Chronic hepatitis B can also turn into liver cancer, which is fatal in the long run.

How can hepatitis B be prevented?

There is a vaccine against hepatitis B, which must be renewed every three to five years. In addition, high-risk behaviour must be avoided. See chapter 'How do you catch hepatitis B?'

When is there no chance of infection?

The hepatitis B virus is NOT found in sweat, tears and breath. Hugging, shaking someone's hand or eating and playing sports together do not carry any risks whatsoever.

How do you catch hepatitis B?

The hepatitis B virus is found in blood, bloody saliva, semen and vaginal secretion and is a hundred times more contagious than HIV. Therefore, the hepatitis B virus can already be transmitted by a mother chewing food for her baby.

Risk factors

* Sharing of syringes and other utensils (among others, spoons) by drug users.

* Use of non-sterile needles in piercing, tattooing and acupuncture.

Sex without using condoms.

* Anal sex without extra-strong condoms.

* French kissing if blood is involved (infected gums). 

* (Anal) oral sex. 

* Heavy petting, whereby genitals are pressed together so close, that mucous membranes make contact. 

* Sadomasochistic games with blood involvement. 

* Sharing of razor blades, razors, thermometers, tooth picks, dental floss and tooth brushes. 

* Contact with infected blood on skin wounds (for instance through biting). 

* Contact with infected blood in eyes, mouth and nose. 

* Blood brotherhood. 

* Mother-to-child infection during pregnancy.