What is hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a virus that can infect the liver. In most cases, the infection goes away on its own and doesn't lead to long-term liver problems. In rare cases, it can be more serious.
How is hepatitis A spread?
The hepatitis A virus is found in the stool of an infected person. It is spread when a person eats food or drinks water that has come in contact with infected stool.
Sometimes a group of people who eat at the same restaurant can get hepatitis A. This can happen when an employee with hepatitis A doesn't wash his or her hands well after using the bathroom and then prepares food. It can also happen when a food item is contaminated by raw sewage or by an infected garden worker.
The disease can also spread in day care centers. Children, especially those in diapers, may get stool on their hands and then touch objects that other children put into their mouths. And workers can spread the virus if they don't wash their hands well after changing a diaper. Washing hands and putting dirty diapers in a covered trash can or diaper pail will help prevent the spread of hepatitis A.
Some things can raise your risk of getting hepatitis A, such as eating raw oysters or undercooked clams. If you're traveling in a country where hepatitis A is common, you can lower your chances of getting the disease by avoiding uncooked foods and untreated tap water.
You may also be at risk if you live with or have sex with someone who has hepatitis A.
What are the symptoms?
After you have been exposed to the virus, it can take from 2 to 7 weeks before you see any signs of it. Symptoms usually last for about 2 months but may last longer.
Common symptoms are:
- Feeling very tired.
- Feeling sick to your stomach and not feeling hungry.
- Losing weight without trying.
- Pain on the right side of the belly, under the rib cage (where your liver is).
- A fever.
- Sore muscles.
- Yellow skin (jaundice), dark urine, and clay-colored stools.
All forms of hepatitis have similar symptoms. Only a blood test can tell if you have hepatitis A or another form of the disease.
Call your doctor if you have reason to think that you have hepatitis A or have been exposed to it. (For example, did you recently eat in a restaurant where a server was found to have hepatitis A? Has there been an outbreak at your child's day care? Does someone in your house have hepatitis A?)
How is hepatitis A diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and where you have eaten or traveled. You may have blood tests if your doctor thinks you have the virus. These tests can tell if your liver is inflamed and whether you have antibodies to the hepatitis A virus. These antibodies show that you have been exposed to the virus.
How is it treated?
Hepatitis A goes away on its own in most cases. Most people get well within a few months. While you have hepatitis:
- Slow down. Cut back on daily activities until all of your energy returns. As you start to feel better, take your time in getting back to your regular routine. If you try to do it too fast, you may get sick again.
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Fruit juices and broth are other good choices, if you can tolerate them.
- Eat a healthy mix of foods. Even though food may not appeal to you, it is important for you to get good nutrition.
- Don't drink alcohol or use illegal drugs. They can make liver problems worse.
- Make sure your doctor knows all the medicines you are taking, including herbal products. Don't start or change any medicines without talking to your doctor first.
If hepatitis A causes more serious illness, you may need to stay in the hospital to prevent problems while your liver heals.
Be sure to take steps to avoid spreading the virus to others.
- Wash your hands with soap and water right after you use the bathroom or change a diaper and before you prepare food.
- Tell the people you live with or have sex with that you have hepatitis A. They should ask their doctors whether they need a dose of the vaccine.
- Don't have sexual contact with anyone while you're infected.
You can only get the hepatitis A virus once. After that, your body builds up a defense against it.
What can you do to prevent hepatitis A?
- Get vaccinated against hepatitis A if your travel plans, job, health, or lifestyle puts you at risk. There is also a combination vaccine for hepatitis A and B.
- Make sure your children get vaccinated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine for all children starting at age 1 year. The vaccine is given to children younger than age 1 who travel to countries where hepatitis is common. If you or your child haven't had the vaccine, talk to your doctor before you travel. It's also important for children adopted from other countries to get the vaccine.
- Talk to your doctor if you've been around someone who you know has hepatitis A. Getting the hepatitis A vaccine or immunoglobulin within 2 weeks of exposure may prevent you from getting sick.
- Practice good hygiene habits.
- Wash your hands well after using the toilet, after changing a diaper, and before you prepare or eat food.
- Wash dishes in hot, soapy water or in a dishwasher.
- Discourage children from putting objects in their mouths.
- Don't eat or drink anything that you think may have been prepared in unclean conditions.
- Don't eat raw or undercooked shellfish.
- If you plan to travel to a part of the world where sanitation is poor or where hepatitis A is a known problem:
- Ask your doctor about getting the hepatitis A vaccine, immunoglobulin, or the combination hepatitis A and B vaccine.
- Always drink bottled water or boil water before drinking it. Avoid drinks with ice cubes.
- Don't eat raw foods, such as unpeeled fruits or vegetables or undercooked meat, shellfish, or seafood.
Other Works Consulted
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2006). Prevention of hepatitis A through active or passive immunization: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR, 55 (RR-7): 1–23. Also available online: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/rr/rr5507.pdf.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009). Updated recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) for use of hepatitis A vaccine in close contacts of newly arriving international adoptees. MMWR, 58(36): 1006–1007. Also available online: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5836a4.htm?s_cid=mm5836a4_e.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2010. MMWR, 59(RR-12): 1–110. Also available online: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5912a1.htm?s_cid=rr5912a1_w.
- Dienstag JL, Delemos AS (2015). Viral hepatitis. In JE Bennett et al., eds., Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 8th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1438–1468. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Current as of: September 23, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
W. Thomas London MD - Hepatology
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