Hepatitis B causes

Hepatitis B is caused by a virus. If you get infected with this virus, the virus travels through your blood to your liver, where it causes inflammation.

Hepatitis B is passed on through blood-to-blood contact – that is, when people come into contact with the blood of someone who has the virus.

This can happen if you share needles during drug use, come into contact with a discarded needle, get a tattoo or body-piercing with a dirty needle, share toothbrushes, razors or other things like that, or have sex without using condoms.

Because hepatitis B is passed on through blood-to-blood contact, it’s also possible for a pregnant woman to pass the virus onto her baby during pregnancy, almost always around the time of birth. All babies of mothers with hepatitis B should be checked for infection.

Women who have hepatitis B can safely breastfeed unless their nipples are cracked or bleeding.

Hepatitis B isn’t common in Australia because children are routinely immunised against it.

Hepatitis B is more common in other parts of the world, especially in developing countries that don’t have immunisation programs like we do in Australia. If you aren’t immunised and travel to these places, you can be at risk of getting the infection if you do any of the risky things mentioned above.

Chronic hepatitis B is a major risk for liver cancer and liver failure later in life.

The hepatitis B vaccine is part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP) in Australia. Since hepatitis B immunisation became part of this free program,  children get hepatitis B much less often than in the past.

Hepatitis B symptoms

The hepatitis B virus usually infects people a few months before any symptoms appear. This is called the ‘incubation period’. This long incubation period can make it hard to know when infection happened.

Children with hepatitis B can have very few obvious symptoms. They might have no symptoms at all, which sometimes makes hepatitis B hard to diagnose.

When there are symptoms, they can come on gradually and might include:

  • loss of appetite and energy
  • tummy pain (especially over the upper right side where the liver is) and vomiting
  • fever
  • jaundice
  • rash
  • dark urine and changes in poo colour
  • painful or swollen joints.

When to see a doctor about hepatitis B symptoms

If your child has any of the above symptoms, or if you think you or your child might have come into contact with the hepatitis B virus, see your doctor.

Tests for hepatitis B

If the GP thinks that your child’s symptoms might be caused by hepatitis B, your child will need blood tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Children infected by hepatitis B need to keep having blood tests to check on their infection and to help make decisions about treatment. Sometimes they need ultrasounds of their livers too.

Treatment for hepatitis B

Some children will get over the virus without treatment. But children are also more likely than adults to develop chronic hepatitis – that is, to carry the virus for a long time. This can put them at risk of future liver failure and liver cancer.

There are now special anti-viral medications for chronic hepatitis B. Health professionals might consider prescribing them for older children and teenagers, especially when it looks like the child might have liver damage.

If your child’s symptoms are severe, she might need to be admitted to hospital. This is quite unusual.

Hepatitis B prevention

The best way to avoid hepatitis B is to have your child immunised. As part of the Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP), your child will get free immunisation against hepatitis B at:

  • birth
  • 6-8 weeks
  • 4 months
  • 6 months.

These immunisations are given by injection, often in combination with immunisation against other diseases.

It’s also very important that pregnant women are tested for hepatitis B. If a pregnant woman has hepatitis B, she’ll get medicine to reduce the chance of passing the virus on to her baby.

Hepatitis B can also be transmitted through exposure to infected blood.

If your child comes into contact with a used needle, use soap and water to wash your child’s skin where the contact happened. Then see your GP. The risk of getting hepatitis B from this kind of contact is very low.

Your child should avoid sharing toothbrushes, razors and other items that might be contaminated with the blood of a person with hepatitis B.

If your child is sexually active, he should always use condoms to help stop the infection being passed on during sex.

And if your child is travelling to developing countries, she should avoid getting a tattoo or body-piercing.