What is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is an infection of the liver caused by the Hepatitis A virus. It is most commonly spread from person to person via the faeco-oral route (ingestion of substances containing faecal matter). This means it can be spread through certain sexual practices, notably oral-anal sex (analingus or rimming), digital-anal sex and sharing sex toys. The virus may also be spread through contaminated water or food.
What is Hepatitis B?
Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver caused by the Hepatitis B virus. It is very infectious – 100 times more infectious than HIV. Because it is found in body fluids such as blood, semen and vaginal secretions it can be passed on by having sex (where the penis enters the anus or vagina), by having oral sex (licking/sucking the genitals) or by sharing sex toys. Hepatitis B can also be passed on by sharing drug injecting equipment, sharing personal items such as razors and toothbrushes, having tattoos or body piercing if the equipment is used by more than one person or accidentally stabbing yourself with an infected needle.
Why can men who have sex with men be at greater risk of becoming infected?
The hepatitis A and B viruses are more widespread among gay and bisexual men and they can be spread through sex. There is no way of telling if a person is infected. The more partners you have the more likely you are to become infected.
How can hepatitis A or B affect me?
Some people become very unwell within 6 weeks of becoming infected with Hepatitis A and within 6 months of becoming infected with Hepatitis B. Others have mild symptoms and don’t recognise they have become infected and some have no symptoms at all. At this early stage it is more common to have symptoms with hepatitis A than Hepatitis B and almost everyone recovers. With Hepatitis A there are usually no long term problems.
Sadly with hepatitis B you can go on and develop a long term (chronic) infection. This can happen whether or not you were unwell to begin with. There can be no symptoms for years but the liver is slowly being damaged leading to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver failure and liver cancer. During all this time you may be well but you can be a carrier and pass the virus on to others. Those who also have hepatitis C or HIV are at greater risk of chronic infection and becoming carriers.
Should I be tested for Hepatitis B?
Because it is possible to have long term ‘silent’ infection with hepatitis B which can be damaging your liver and making you infectious to others regular testing is recommended. This can be done on a blood test. A sexual health clinic will offer this to you if you let them know you have sex with other men (see Further information below for more details). You can also discuss testing with your GP.
How can I protect myself against Hepatitis A and B?
See the Vaccination section for info.
I am not vaccinated but I am worried that I have recently had sexual exposure to someone who may have hepatitis. Is there something I can do now?
It is important you speak to your GP or healthcare staff at a Sexual Health Clinic or Accident and Emergency as soon as possible.A vaccination course for hepatitis B can offer some protection if given up to six weeks after an exposure. It is important not to leave it any longer than necessary since the sooner vaccination is given the better. Ideally it should be started within 48 hours.
For further information on Hepatitis A&B infections and vaccination contact your GP or phone the Sexual Health Dumfries and Galloway on 0845 702 3687.
Condoms and support: More info here