HIV, hepatitis B & hepatitis C

HIV and hepatitis B are infections that you can get from having sex, or from contaminated blood (through sharing needles during drug use) or at birth from an infected mother. Hepatitis C is also a bloodborne virus. 

You are tested for these infections as part of the routine screen for sexually transmitted infections, and also part of the screening blood tests done when you fall pregnant.

About HIV

HIV stands for  human immunodeficiency virus and it has this name because it acts by weakening your immune system. The virus can be found in blood, semen and in vaginal fluid.

The highest rate of infection is still amongst men who have unprotected anal sex. However, HIV can be transmitted through unprotected heterosexual sex, including oral sex. Sharing needles or syringes during drug use is also a high risk activity. HIV can also be spread from a HIV positive mother to her baby during pregnancy or birth, or while she is breastfeeding.

HIV does not live for very long outside of the body and it can be killed off fairly easily through normal cleaning practices with soap and water. You will not catch HIV through normal, non-sexual contact with a HIV-infected person.

In Australia, all blood donations are tested for HIV, so it is very unlikely that someone will be infected during a blood transfusion.

HIV can eventually cause AIDS, a condition which describes the onset of the various diseases that eventually take advantage of your body’s weakened immune system. It can take many years for HIV to progress to AIDS but without treatment for HIV, it will usually take between five and ten years for the onset of AIDS. There are also a very small proportion of people whose HIV will not progress to AIDS.

It is possible to have HIV without having any symptoms, which does not mean that the affected person is less infectious.

Symptoms include feeling like you have flu, extreme tiredness, fevers, unexplained weight loss, swollen glands, white spots in the mouth, unusual marks on the skin, coughing, diarrhoea and reduced appetite.

Testing for HIV involves a blood test. If you are tested you are also offered counselling both before and after the test.

Hepatitis C and B

Hepatitis describes a number of viral infections that affect the liver. Hepatitis viruses are spread in different ways. Here we describe hepatitis C and hepatitis B as they are both spread through the blood.  

Hepatitis B can also be shared through saliva and semen. For this reason hepatitis B is considered a sexually transmitted disease. Hepatitis C can only be spread through blood; therefore it will only be transmitted through sexual contact if the blood of one sexual partner gets into an open cut of the other.

Mothers with chronic hepatitis B can also pass it on to their children. Babies can be infected during or shortly after birth.

Both hepatitis B and hepatitis C can be spread through injecting drug use, tattooing with equipment that is not sterilised, sharing razors or toothbrushes or any other practice where the blood of an infected person can get into an open cut on another person.

What will hepatitis do to me?

Most adults (95 per cent) with hepatitis B will recover with no medical assistance. Very rarely people will get very sick and some will die.  Some people will develop a chronic strain. Children, in particular, are more likely to develop the chronic strain, particularly in more vulnerable population groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Chronic illness can lead to liver problems in the long term and, for some people, liver cancer.

In the case of hepatitis C, over 70 per cent of people who have been infected may develop chronic hepatitis C. Up to 20 per cent of people who have chronic hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis (scarring of the liver). This may take 20 years or more to develop. A small number of people with cirrhosis may develop liver cancer.

People with chronic hepatitis C remain infectious throughout their lives and can potentially pass the virus on to others.

Twenty to 30 per cent of people who have been infected with hepatitis C may clear the virus from their blood with no treatment. These people no longer have hepatitis C and are not infectious.

Symptoms

Many people may have no symptoms at all or they might experience minor symptoms when they are first infected that clear after a few weeks. Chronic symptoms for both hepatitis B and hepatitis C include tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, soreness in the upper right part of the belly, fever or flu-like symptoms and joint pain.

Prevention

There is no currently no immunisation for hepatitis C. To avoid infection, avoid unprotected sex, sharing needles, unsafe tattoo practices and any situation where infected blood can be transferred to your blood.

A vaccine is available for hepatitis B. Talk to your GP about vaccination, particularly if you believe you may be at risk.

Tests and treatments

There are tests and treatments for both hepatitis B and hepatitis C. See your GP if you believe you may have been exposed to either virus.


Share this page

Disclaimer

The Women’s does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or use of such information or advice) which is provided on the Website or incorporated into it by reference. The Women’s provide this information on the understanding that all persons accessing it take responsibility for assessing its relevance and accuracy. Women are encouraged to discuss their health needs with a health practitioner. If you have concerns about your health, you should seek advice from your health care provider or if you require urgent care you should go to the nearest Emergency Dept.

One gift to the Women's will benefit many Make a donation today