“Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). The liver is a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood, and fights infections. When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function can be affected. Hepatitis A can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months.
Not everyone with hepatitis A infection has symptoms. If symptoms develop, they usually appear two to six weeks after infection and can include:
- Fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, joint pain
- Severe stomach pains and diarrhea (mainly in children)
- Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes, dark urine, clay-colored bowel movements)
Symptoms are more likely to occur in adults than in children. They usually last less than two months, although some people can be ill for as long as six months. You can spread HAV without having symptoms.
A medical professional can diagnose hepatitis A by looking at symptoms and performing a blood test for hepatitis A antibodies.
Hepatitis A is usually spread when a person ingests fecal matter – even in microscopic amounts – from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by feces or stool from an infected person.
On rare occasions, the source of the infection can be traced to contaminated food. Foods can become contaminated at any point: growing, harvesting, processing, handling, and even after cooking. In these cases, health officials will try to determine the source of the contamination and the best ways to minimize health threats to the public.
The best way to prevent hepatitis A is by getting vaccinated. Experts recommend the vaccine for all children beginning at 12 months of age. While anyone else seeking protection from hepatitis A can also be vaccinated, vaccination is recommended for people with certain risk factors and medical conditions. You should get hepatitis A vaccine if you:
- Are traveling to countries where hepatitis A is common
- Are a man who has sex with other men
- Use illegal drugs
- Have a chronic liver disease such as hepatitis B or hepatitis C
- Are being treated with clotting-factor concentrates
- Work with hepatitis A-infected animals or in a hepatitis A research laboratory
- Expect to have close personal contact with an international adoptee from a country where hepatitis A is common
For more information on the recommended hepatitis A vaccination schedule, please visit the Vermont Department of Health Immunization Program website.
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A. Most people with hepatitis A will feel better without medical treatment by getting adequate rest, good nutrition and avoiding anything that can irritate the liver, such as acetaminophen and alcohol. A few people will need to be hospitalized because of severe symptoms or very abnormal liver function tests.
If you were recently exposed to hepatitis A virus and have not been vaccinated against hepatitis A, you might benefit from an injection of hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin (a substance that contains antibodies that protect the body against diseases) depending on your age and overall health. However, the vaccine or immune globulin must be given within the first 2 weeks after exposure to be effective.
Hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin may be recommended within 2 weeks of exposure for people who:
- Live with someone who has hepatitis A
- Have recently had sexual contact with someone who has hepatitis A
- Have recently shared injection or non-injection illegal drugs with someone who has hepatitis A
- Have had ongoing, close personal contact with a person with hepatitis A, such as a regular babysitter or caregiver
- Have been exposed to food or water known to be contaminated with hepatitis A virus
- Hepatitis A Questions and Answers for Health Professionals
- Hepatitis A Vaccination: Information for Health Care Providers
- Hepatitis A Professional Resources for tools, fact sheets, guidelines and trainings