About hepatitis B

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 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. If you aren’t immunised and travel to these places, you can be at risk of getting hepatitis B.

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.

How hepatitis B spreads

Hepatitis B spreads 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
  • 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.

Hepatitis B symptoms

The hepatitis B virus usually infects people a few months before any symptoms appear.

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 might come on gradually and include:

  • loss of appetite and energy
  • stomach 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.

Does your child need to see a doctor about hepatitis B?

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 GP.

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 doctors make treatment decisions.

Sometimes children need ultrasounds of their livers.

Treatment for hepatitis B

Some children will get over the virus without treatment. But younger children are much more likely than adults to develop chronic hepatitis B – 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 some 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: immunisation

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.

Hepatitis B prevention: pregnancy and breastfeeding

It’s very important that pregnant women are tested for hepatitis B.

If a pregnant woman has hepatitis B, she might be given medicine to reduce the chance of passing the virus on to her baby. At birth, the baby might also get a special injection of antibodies against hepatitis B, as well as the standard hepatitis B immunisation.

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

Extra hepatitis B prevention measures for all children and teenagers

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 not share toothbrushes, razors or other items that belong to someone who has hepatitis B, because these things might be contaminated with infected blood.

Extra hepatitis B prevention measures for teenagers

If your teenage child is sexually active, he can reduce the risk of getting hepatitis B by using condoms during vaginal or anal sex.

You can help reduce your child’s risk by making sure your child has:

  • accurate information about safe sexual practices
  • access to condoms
  • access to reliable advice about sexuality and sexual health from a GP or other health professional, if she doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you.

If your child wants to get a tattoo or body-piercing, you can help him find a safe and professional tattooist or piercer.

If you’re concerned that your child is using intravenous drugs, you could start by talking to your GP, your child’s school counsellor or other school staff for resources and support options.