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Hepatitis

Hepatitis is the medical name for inflammation of the liver. There are different causes of hepatitis, some of which are viruses and can be transmitted through sexual activity, others can be caused by alcohol. This page focuses on those types of viral hepatitis that can be sexually transmitted.

Here are some key facts:

  • The commonest type of viral hepatitis in the UK that is sexually transmitted is hepatitis B
  • Most hepatitis C in the UK is transmitted by the sharing of equipment for intravenous drug use
  • Some types of hepatitis can pass without affecting the liver, but others can become more chronic and last for many years, or cause cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) 
  • There can be no symptoms, but initial symptoms can be similar to the flu such as temperature, muscle and joint pain and feeling sick
  • Different types of hepatitis can be carried in the blood and other bodily fluids such as faeces, saliva, semen and vaginal fluids, so they can be transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex
  • There is a vaccination for hepatitis A and hepatitis B, although this is usually only recommended if you are travelling to certain countries where these types of hepatitis can be more easily transmitted due to poor sanitation. There is no vaccination for hepatitis C
  • Hepatitis can be diagnosed by blood test, which can also include a test of your liver function
  • Antiviral medications can be prescribed to manage symptoms, in cases of chronic hepatitis C this may lead to a cure but not always

You can read about hepatitis in more detail below.

Signs and symptoms of hepatitis

In many cases hepatitis can have no symptoms. Early signs can include flu-like symptoms such as muscle and joint pain, headaches, feeling sick, temperature and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).

Symptoms of chronic hepatitis include feeling tired all the time and generally feeling unwell, jaundice and depression. Some types of hepatitis (such as hepatitis A) can also cause itching.

As hepatitis can have no symptoms the only way to know for sure is to get tested. If you have had unprotected sex or your contraception has failed you can find out more about getting tested for STIs. You may also need to find out about emergency contraception.

The causes and spread of hepatitis

There are several different types of hepatitis and they are not always purely transmitted as an STI. Here we outline further information about hepatitis A and B which can be transmitted through unprotected sexual activity. 

Hepatitis A is uncommon in the UK but widespread in parts of the world where sanitation is poor and is most often spread by eating food contaminated by the faeces of an infected person. For this reason, a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended if you are travelling to certain countries where hepatitis A is common. If you have had unprotected anal sex or oral sex without using a dam this can transmit hepatitis A, although this is less common in the UK. There is no treatment for hepatitis A, although symptoms can be managed by getting plenty of rest and taking painkillers to relieve discomfort. The infection usually passes within three months.

Hepatitis B is also caused by coming into contact with the blood or bodily fluids (such as semen and vaginal fluids) of an infected person. It can be passed on during unprotected vaginal, anal and oral sex, pregnancy, and sharing needles to inject drugs. There is no specific treatment for hepatitis B and most cases pass within a couple of months, however in some people this can lead to chronic hepatitis B which, although treatable with antiviral medication, is a long-term condition which can cause cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver. Hepatitis B is not common in the UK, but your risk is increased if your partner is from - or if you travel to - parts of the world where it is relatively common such as sub-Saharan Africa, east and southeast Asia, the Middle East and southern and eastern Europe. A vaccination is available for travellers or people in high-risk groups such as drug users and healthcare workers.

It is worth knowing about hepatitis C which is the most common type of viral hepatitis in the UK and around 215,000 people in the UK have chronic hepatitis C. Although the virus can be spread via saliva, vaginal fluids and semen this is rare and it is most commonly spread through blood to blood contact (9/10 cases are spread through sharing needles to inject drugs). Some people recover from the infection, however the majority will have the virus for many years (this is known as chronic hepatitis C). There is no vaccination for hepatitis C although antiviral medication can be prescribed to relive symptoms, which may also sometimes cure the infection.

Other types of hepatitis include hepatitis D, hepatitis E, alcoholic hepatitis and autoimmune hepatitis. You can read more about the different types of hepatitis on the NHS Choices website.

Testing for hepatitis

Hepatitis is tested by blood test, designed to look for evidence that your immune system is trying to fight the virus. Testing can also include a check of your liver function. Further testing (if required) can include an ultrasound scan, or a liver biopsy (where a small sample of liver tissue is taken for testing).

You can get tested for hepatitis at:

If you test positively for hepatitis your doctor or nurse will advise you what to do and may prescribe antiviral medication. If you test positively for hepatitis C you will be referred to a specialist to discuss treatment options. It is thought that treatment is more effective the sooner it is started.

Some types of viral hepatitis will also require Public Health England to be notified. This is for types of hepatitis which are rarer in the UK such as hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

Treatment of hepatitis

For many types of hepatitis there is no treatment, although symptoms can be managed with antiviral medication. It is also important to rest, stay hydrated and also rest your liver (such as not drinking any alcohol). You may also be advised to take painkillers such as ibuprofen. Some infections pass within a few months while others can become more chronic.

If you test positively for hepatitis you should tell your current and any recent sexual partners so that they can get tested too. Some clinics also offer ‘partner notification’ which is a way to contact your partner using what’s called a ‘contact slip’. This process doesn’t mention your name and lets your partner/s know that they may have been exposed to an STI and advising them to get tested.

Page last reviewed: February 2016
Next review due: February 2017