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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.

Other viruses (hepatitis B and hepatitis C) also can cause hepatitis. Hepatitis A is the most common type.

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.

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 prove that you have been exposed to the virus.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 30, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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