Hepatitis A

Last Updated July 2021 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is a general term for inflammation of the liver. Normally, the liver breaks down waste products in your blood. But when the liver is inflamed, it doesn’t do a good job of getting rid of waste products. This causes waste products to build up in your blood and tissues.

Many different things can cause hepatitis. The most common cause of hepatitis is infection with one of the 5 hepatitis viruses (A, B, C, D, or E). Lack of blood supply to the liver, poison, autoimmune disorders, excessive alcohol use, liver injury, and taking certain medicines can also cause hepatitis. Less commonly, viral infections such as mononucleosis or cytomegalovirus can cause hepatitis.

There are 2 main kinds of hepatitis: acute hepatitis and chronic hepatitis. Most people get over the acute hepatitis in a few days or weeks. Sometimes, however, the inflammation doesn’t go away. When the inflammation doesn’t go away in 6 months, the person has chronic hepatitis.

What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A (Hep A) is liver inflammation caused by the hepatitis A virus. Hepatitis A is different from other types of hepatitis. It isn’t typically as serious as hepatitis B or C, and it doesn’t usually develop into chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis (late-stage scarring of the liver).

Hepatitis A is very contagious. This means that you can easily catch the virus from someone or give it to someone else. You are most contagious soon after you are infected and before symptoms appear. Adults who are otherwise healthy are no longer contagious 2 weeks after the illness begins. Children and people who have a weak immune system may be contagious for up to 6 months.

Symptoms of hepatitis A

The hepatitis A virus is usually in your system for 2 to 6 weeks before symptoms appear. Some people never have symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they can appear suddenly and may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice (the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • Low-grade fever (fever up to 102°F)
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in your abdomen, especially on your right side
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle pain

Young children are likely to have mild cases of hepatitis A, while symptoms in older children and adults are more likely to be severe.

What causes hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is caused by infection with the hepatitis A virus. You get the virus when you unknowingly eat a small amount of infected feces. This can happen through person-to-person contact, or through eating or drinking contaminated food or water.

A person can have and spread hepatitis A, even if that person does not have any symptoms. You are most likely to get hepatitis A from another person when:

  • A person who has the virus does not wash their hands properly after going to the bathroom
  • A parent does not wash their hands properly after changing the diaper of an infected child
  • A caregiver does not wash their hands properly after cleaning up the stool of an infected person
  • A person has sex with a person who has the virus

You can also get infected with hepatitis A by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. Contaminated food and water are more common in developing countries. When traveling in areas where hepatitis A is common, avoid eating raw fruits and vegetables, shellfish, ice, and untreated water.

How is hepatitis A diagnosed?

See your doctor if you have any of the symptoms of hepatitis A. They can do a blood test to see if you have the disease.

Hepatitis A treatment

There is no specific medicine to treat or cure hepatitis A. If you have the virus, your body will eventually get rid of the infection on its own. You probably will feel sick for a few months before you begin to feel better.

To help your liver heal, you should get plenty of rest, eat a balanced diet and avoid alcohol and acetaminophen (one brand name: Tylenol). Talk with your doctor before you take any prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, or supplements. Alcohol, acetaminophen, and certain other medicines, vitamins, and supplements can cause more damage to your liver.

You may need to stay in the hospital for a short time if you get dehydrated, have severe pain, suddenly become confused, or develop bleeding problems.

Can hepatitis A be prevented or avoided?

The best way to protect yourself against hepatitis A is to get the vaccine. The hepatitis A vaccination is recommended for all children older than age 1. It begins to protect you only 4 weeks after you are vaccinated. A 6- to 12-month booster is required for long-term protection. Ask your doctor if the vaccination is right for you.

You should also wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after cooking, after using the bathroom, and after changing diapers.

Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating and avoid raw or undercooked meat and fish.

You are at higher risk for hepatitis A if you:

  • Live with or have sex with someone who has hepatitis A
  • Travel to countries where hepatitis A is common
  • Are a man who has sex with other men
  • Use illegal drugs
  • Have a clotting-factor disorder (such as hemophilia)

Living with hepatitis A

Once you recover from hepatitis A, you develop antibodies that protect you from the virus for life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • Do I need treatment?
  • What treatment is best for me?
  • Will I need be hospitalized?
  • Are there any medicines I should avoid taking?
  • Are there foods I should avoid eating?
  • Can I drink alcohol?
  • How can I protect my family from getting hepatitis A?
  • If I’ve had hepatitis A, am I at higher risk of getting other types of hepatitis?
  • Will I have permanent liver damage?
  • How soon before I travel should I be vaccinated?