What is hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a virus that can infect the liver. Hepatitis A spreads when people eat food or drink water that is contaminated by stool (feces) that has the virus in it. The infection usually goes away on its own and doesn't lead to long-term liver problems. Rarely, it can be more serious.
How is it 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.
It also can be spread when someone touches items that have infected stool on them and then drinks or eats without washing their hands.
Sometimes people can get hepatitis A at a restaurant when employees who have hepatitis A don't wash their hands well after using the bathroom and then prepare food. It can also happen when a food item comes into contact with raw sewage.
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 then put into their mouths. Workers can spread the virus if they don't wash their hands well after changing a diaper.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may include:
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice).
Symptoms usually last about 3 months. They go away on their own in almost all cases and do not need treatment. Although hepatitis A is an infection of the liver, the disease does not lead to long-term liver problems.
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and where you have eaten or traveled. You may have blood tests. 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 hepatitis A treated?
There is no treatment for hepatitis A. You get better on your own. You can take steps to help yourself feel better:
- Reduce your activity level to meet your energy level.
- Eat regular meals. If you feel sick to your stomach, eat many small meals rather than three large meals.
- To prevent dehydration, drink plenty of fluids. Choose water and other clear liquids until you feel better. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
- Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs. Using drugs or alcohol may make the disease last longer.
How can you prevent it?
You can get hepatitis A or give it to other people before and after symptoms are present.
To avoid getting hepatitis A:
- Talk to your doctor about the hepatitis A vaccine. People who may need it include travelers to countries where the disease is common, men who have sex with men, and people with liver disease.
- Get the vaccine or a shot of immunoglobulin (IG) within 2 weeks of known exposure. It may prevent the disease.
- Make sure you and your family wash your hands with soap and clean, running water after using the toilet or changing diapers and before preparing or eating food.
To avoid spreading hepatitis A if you have it:
- Tell people you live with or have sex with that you have the disease. They should see their doctor.
- Wash your hands with soap and clean, running water after you use the toilet and before you prepare or eat food.
Current as of: February 9, 2022
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