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Hepatitis A

What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a liver disease that is easily spread from person to person (highly contagious). It is caused by the hepatitis A virus.   

Hepatitis is a redness or swelling (inflammation) of the liver that sometimes causes lasting damage. Hepatitis A is one type of hepatitis.

In most cases, hepatitis A does not cause a long-term (chronic) infection. But it can take some time to fully get well. You may be sick for a few weeks. But it may take up to 6 months or longer to fully recover.

In rare cases hepatitis A can cause severe liver damage, leading to death.

What causes hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is often spread when the virus is taken in by mouth. This happens when you have contact with objects, food, or drinks that are contaminated by the stool of an infected person.

This may happen through person-to-person contact such as:

  • When an infected person doesn’t wash their hands well after going to the bathroom and touches other objects or food

  • When a parent or caregiver doesn’t wash their hands well after changing diapers or cleaning up the stool of someone who is infected

  • When you have sex with someone who is infected

This can also happen if you:

  • Eat food made by someone who touched infected stool

  • Drink water that is contaminated by infected stool (a problem in developing countries)

In rare cases, the virus may also be spread by contamination from blood and other body fluids (blood-borne infection).  

In most cases, normal contact in school or at work won’t spread the virus.

Who is at risk for hepatitis A?

You may be at high risk for hepatitis A if you travel to places where the virus is common. These places include:

  • Africa

  • Asia (except Japan)

  • The Mediterranean basin

  • Eastern Europe

  • The Middle East

  • Central and South America

  • Mexico

  • Parts of the Caribbean

You may also be at high risk if you:

  • Are living in or moving to a place in the U.S. or another country that has had 1 or more recorded large numbers of hepatitis A cases, or outbreaks, in the past 5years

  • Are in the military

  • Have unsafe sex  

  • Use illegal IV (intravenous) drugs

  • Have a blood disorder such as hemophilia, and need to take blood treatments

  • Work at a daycare center

  • Work in a nursing home, prison, or other type of care facility

  • Are a lab worker who handles live hepatitis A virus

  • Handle monkeys or apes (primates) that may have the hepatitis A virus

  • Are in close contact with a child recently adopted from a country with a medium to high rate of hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is sometimes called a traveler's disease. It is a very common disease for travelers. But you can also get infected with hepatitis A in the U.S. In some cases people in the U.S. have gotten the virus without having any risk factors.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

Symptoms of hepatitis A often look like flu symptoms. Each person’s symptoms may vary. Symptoms may include:

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Joint pain

  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)

  • Overall feeling of weakness

  • Loss of appetite

  • Upset stomach or nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Belly (abdominal) pain

  • Dark urine

  • Clay-colored stools

  • Yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice)

  • Diarrhea

Some adults have no symptoms. Most children have no symptoms, especially children younger than 6 years old.

Hepatitis A symptoms can look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider to be sure.

How is hepatitis A diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will give you a physical exam and ask about your past health.

A blood test called IgM anti-HAV is needed to be sure you have hepatitis A. This test looks for any infection-fighting cells (antibodies) you may have against the hepatitis A virus in your blood. If these antibodies are in your blood, that means you have recently been infected.

How is hepatitis A treated?

Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Most people with hepatitis A get better without any medical care. In some cases bed rest and some medicines may be needed.

What are the complications of hepatitis A?

In rare cases hepatitis A may cause liver failure, leading to death.

What can I do to prevent hepatitis A?

To help stop the spread of hepatitis A, it is important to have good personal health (hygiene) habits and avoid any risky behaviors. Wash your hands often after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, or before making food.

In addition, there are 2 shots (injections) that can help protect you from hepatitis A:

  • Immune globulin shot. This shot is a mix of infection-fighting cells or antibodies. You can have the shot before you may be exposed to the virus, such as before you travel. You can also have the shot soon after you have been exposed to the virus.

  • Hepatitis A vaccine. This vaccine is made from whole, killed hepatitis A virus. It does not have a live virus, so you can’t get hepatitis from it. The vaccine helps to get your body's natural infection-fighting system (immune system) working. After you have the shot, your body makes antibodies that protect you against the virus.

The hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for anyone who wants it. The vaccine is very important for people who are at risk for infection such as:

  • People traveling to or working in countries with medium to high rates of hepatitis A

  • All children 1 year old

  • Men who have sex with men

  • People who use illegal drugs

  • People whose jobs make them at risk for the disease

  • People with long-term (chronic) liver disease

  • People with bleeding disorders (clotting-factor disorders) such as hemophilia

  • People adopting children from a country with a medium to high rate of hepatitis A

Living with hepatitis A

Symptoms of hepatitis A can last from a few weeks to a few months. Follow your healthcare provider’s advice on how to treat and manage hepatitis A.

When you have hepatitis A it’s very important to:

  • Have a healthy diet

  • Get plenty of rest

  • Take any medicines your healthcare provider has recommended

  • Check with your healthcare provider before taking any over-the-counter pain or fever medicine, such as acetaminophen

  • Not drink alcohol

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if your symptoms don’t go away as soon as expected. Also call if your symptoms go away and then come back.

Key points about hepatitis A

  • Hepatitis A is a liver disease that is easily spread from person to person (highly contagious). It is caused by the hepatitis A virus.

  • In most cases it doesn’t cause a long-term (chronic) infection. In some cases it can cause severe liver damage, leading to death.

  • It is often spread when you have contact with objects, food, or drinks that are contaminated by the stool of an infected person.

  • Symptoms can look like flu symptoms. Some adults have no symptoms. Most children have no symptoms.

  • You may be at high risk if you travel to places where the virus is common.

  • Other high-risk factors include using illegal drugs, having unsafe sex, traveling to places where the virus is common, and working in a daycare center or nursing home.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Ronald Karlin MD
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2018
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