Hepatitis A (Hep A)

What Is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A, also called hep A, is a contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. Some people have only a mild illness that lasts a few weeks. Others have more severe problems that can last months. You usually get the disease when you eat or drink something contaminated by poop from a person who has the virus.

The hepatitis A virus usually isn’t dangerous. Almost everyone who has it gets better. But because it can take a while to go away, you’ll need to take care of yourself in the meantime.

 

Hepatitis A Symptoms

If you have this infection, the virus is causing inflammation in your liver. Some people, especially many children, don’t have symptoms. Others might have:

  • Jaundice (yellow eyes and skin)
  • Belly pain
  • Dark urine
  • Loss of appetite
  • Upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Itching
  • Pale-colored poop
  • Joint pain
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue

These problems tend to go away after about 2 months but might keep coming back for up to 6 months.

You can spread the hepatitis A virus even if you feel fine. You can also spread it about 2 weeks before your symptoms appear and during the first week after they show up.

Hepatitis A Causes

You can catch the disease by drinking water or eating food that's been contaminated by someone with the virus. You can also get hepatitis A if you:

  • Eat fruits, vegetables, or other foods handled or prepared by a person who has the virus
  • Eat raw shellfish harvested from water where the virus lives
  • Swallow contaminated ice
  • Have sex with someone who has it
  • Touch your mouth after touching a contaminated object

Hepatitis A Risk Factors

You could be at higher risk of getting the disease if you:

  • Have close contact with someone who's infected
  • Travel to countries where hepatitis A is common
  • Are homeless
  • Use recreational drugs, even without needles
  • Have a blood clotting disorder like hemophilia
  • Work with primates
  • Have HIV

Also at higher risk are:

  • Men who have sex with men
  • Kids in child care and their teachers

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Hepatitis A Diagnosis

Your doctor will first ask about your symptoms and check for high levels of liver enzymes in your blood. Then, they’ll do more blood tests to look for:

  • IgM (immunoglobulin M) antibodies. Your body makes these when you’re first exposed to hepatitis A. They stay in your blood for about 3 to 6 months.
  • IgG (immunoglobulin G) antibodies. These show up after the virus has been in your body for a while. You may have them all your life. They protect you against hepatitis A. If you test positive for them but not for IgM antibodies, it means you had a hepatitis A infection in the past or had vaccinations to protect against it.

Hepatitis A Treatment

No medication can get rid of the hepatitis A virus once you have it. Your doctor will treat your symptoms -- they may call this supportive care -- until it goes away. They’ll also do tests that check how well your liver is working to be sure your body is healing like it should.

You can take these steps to make yourself more comfortable:

  • Get some rest. You’ll probably feel tired and sick and have less energy than usual.
  • Try to keep food down. The nausea that sometimes comes with hepatitis A can make it tough to eat. It may be easier to snack during the day than to eat full meals. To make sure you get enough nutrients, go for more high-calorie foods and drink fruit juice or milk instead of water. Fluids will also help keep you hydrated if you’re throwing up.
  • Avoid alcohol. It’s harder for your liver to handle medications and alcohol when you have the virus. Plus, drinking can lead to more liver damage. Tell your doctor about any medications you take, including over-the-counter drugs, as these might also hurt your liver.

Hepatitis A Complications

The virus usually doesn't cause any long-term problems or complications. Rarely, you may have liver failure or need a transplant.

Hepatitis A Vaccine

The vaccine to prevent it is about 95% effective in healthy adults and can work for more than 20 years. In children, it’s about 85% effective and can last 15 to 20 years.

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Experts recommend that certain people get vaccinated:

  • Travelers to countries with more hepatitis A infections
  • Infants 6 to 11 months old who will be traveling internationally
  • Children at 1 year old
  • Families adopting children from countries where the virus is common
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People who have a blood clotting problem
  • Those experiencing homelessness
  • People who have direct contact with a person with the virus
  • People who use recreational drugs
  • People who have long-term liver disease
  • Anyone else who wants to be protected against the virus

The hepatitis A vaccine includes two injections 6 months apart. A combination vaccine for hepatitis A and B has three shots over 6 months.

Hepatitis A Vaccine and Travel

If you’re going to a country where hepatitis A is common and you’ve never had the virus or the vaccine, start the vaccination process as soon as you can. It takes 2 to 4 weeks after the first dose for the vaccine to work, but even one shot a few days before you leave will give you some protection.

People who are allergic to something in the vaccine and children younger than 6 months might instead get a shot of immune globulin (IG), which will protect against hepatitis A for up to 2 months.

Hepatitis A Prevention

The vaccine is your best defense. If you come into contact with someone who has hepatitis A, you can get the vaccine or an IG shot within 2 weeks for some protection.

Good hygiene is also important. Always wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, before and after handling food, and after changing a diaper.

When you travel to a place with poor sanitation, don’t drink tap water or eat raw food.

Hepatitis A Transmission Prevention

When you have hepatitis A, take these steps to keep from giving it to others:

  • Avoid all sexual activity.
  • Wash your hands after you use the bathroom or change diapers.
  • Don’t prepare food for other people.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on December 10, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Lab Tests Online: “Hepatitis A Testing,” “Immunoglobulin G (IgG),” “Immunoglobulin M (IgM).”

UpToDate: “Hepatitis A virus infection in adults: Epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis,” “Hepatitis A virus infection: Treatment and prevention.”

Mayo Clinic: “Hepatitis A.”

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Hepatitis A.”

Merck Manual Consumer Version: “Hepatitis A.”

CDC: “Hepatitis A Information.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Hepatitis A.”

World Health Organization: “International travel and health – Hepatitis A.”

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