What Is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). Hepatitis A is also called infectious hepatitis.

How Do People Get Hepatitis A?

HAV spreads through the feces (poop) of infected individuals. Someone can become infected by eating, drinking, or touching something (such as doorknobs or diapers) that's been contaminated by poop. Childcare centers are a common site of outbreaks.

HAV can spread:

  • when people ingest something contaminated with HAV-infected poop (which is why it's easy for the virus to spread in overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions)
  • in water, milk, and foods (especially shellfish)

Hepatitis A can remain in the stool for several months after the initial illness, especially in babies and younger children.

Who Is at Risk for Hepatitis A?

A safe and very effective vaccine against HAV became available in 1995. HAV infections now are rare in the United States and other developed countries with good sanitation and clean living conditions.

People who haven't been immunized can get an HAV infection if they:

  • travel to or live in countries where the virus is common (especially developing countries with poor sanitation)
  • live with or care for someone who's infected
  • use illegal drugs
  • have sex with someone who has HAV

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of HAV Infection?

Hepatitis A can be a mild infection, particularly in kids younger than 6, so many people might not ever know that they had an infection.

When symptoms do happen, they typically start 2 to 6 weeks after exposure to the virus and are more likely in adults and kids older than 6. HAV can cause vomiting and diarrhea, as well as fever, loss of appetite, darker than usual urine (pee), jaundice (when the skin and whites of the eyes look yellow), and abdominal (belly) pain.

HAV infections that cause serious symptoms can last for weeks or even months. Some people with HAV can feel ill for up to 6 months.

How Is Hepatitis A Diagnosed?

If needed, doctors can do a blood test to look for HAV antibodies. Many mild HAV infections go undetected.

How Is Hepatitis A Treated?

No specific medicines are used to treat hepatitis A. The infection will go away on its own, usually within a few weeks or months.

HAV in rare cases can cause liver failure, requiring a liver transplant.

What Happens After a Hepatitis A Infection?

Unlike some other hepatitis viruses, hepatitis A rarely leads to long-lasting liver damage. Within a few weeks, the symptoms will have gone away on their own and the virus won't be in a person's system.

After recovering, a person is immune to the virus for the rest of his or her life.

Can Hepatitis A Be Prevented?

Yes. The hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for all children over 1 year old. The vaccine is given at 12 months of age, followed by a second dose at least 6 months later. Having many young kids vaccinated against HAV can limit the spread of the disease in a community.

The vaccine can be given as early as 6 months of age to babies who will travel to a place where hepatitis A is common (they will still need routine vaccination after their first birthday).

The vaccine also is recommended for older kids, teens, and adults who have never gotten it.

The best way to prevent hepatitis A and many other infections is to wash hands well and often. This is especially important after using the toilet (or changing a diaper) and before eating or preparing food.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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