Hepatitis A is a liver infection caused by a virus that can spread easily from person to person. It can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a more serious illness lasting several months. Hepatitis A is spread when someone ingests the virus during close, person-to-person contact or when someone eats or drinks something that is contaminated with hepatitis A virus.
Not everyone with hepatitis A infection has symptoms. Adults are more likely to have symptoms than children. If symptoms develop, they usually appear two to seven weeks after being infected and can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Dark urine
- Light-colored poop
- Yellow skin and eyes
Symptoms can last a few weeks or up to six months. People can still spread hepatitis A without having any symptoms.
The hepatitis A virus is in the poop and blood of people who have a hepatitis A infection. Hepatitis A spreads easily from person to person. People can spread it to others before they even feel sick.
Hepatitis A spreads through close contact with someone who has a hepatitis A infection, such as through having sex, caring for someone who is ill or using drugs.
Sometimes, hepatitis A infections can be traced back 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 keep the public safe from the infection.
The best way to prevent hepatitis A is with the safe and effective hepatitis A vaccine. In the U.S., the hepatitis A vaccine has been a routine childhood vaccine since 2005. You should get hepatitis A vaccine if you:
- Are traveling to countries where hepatitis A is common.
- Are a man who has sex with men.
- Use or inject drugs.
- Have recently been in prison.
- Lack access to a place to wash your hands.
- Have unstable housing or are experiencing homelessness.
- Have a chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis B or hepatitis C.
- Have a clotting factor disorder.
- Work with hepatitis A-infected animals or in a hepatitis A research laboratory.
- Have direct contact with others who have hepatitis A.
- Expect to have close personal contact with someone from a country where hepatitis A is common.
Call your health care provider to get the hepatitis A vaccine. If you don’t have health insurance, contact your Local Health Office to get information about their free immunization clinics.
Practicing good hand hygiene – including thoroughly washing hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers and before preparing or eating food – plays an important role in preventing the spread of hepatitis A. If soap and water aren’t available, clean your hands with hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol. Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth. If you need to touch your face, make sure your hands are clean. Try to avoid close contact and sharing utensils or cups with people who are sick.
If you were recently exposed to hepatitis A and have not been vaccinated against it, a health care provider may give you the hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin (IG) to prevent an infection, depending on your age and overall health. IG contains antibodies that protect the body. To be effective, the vaccine or IG must be given within two weeks after being exposed to hepatitis A.
Hepatitis A vaccine or IG may be recommended within two weeks of exposure for people who:
- Live with someone who has hepatitis A.
- Recently had sex with someone who has hepatitis A.
- Recently shared injection or non-injection drugs with someone who has hepatitis A.
- 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.
To treat the symptoms of hepatitis A, doctors usually recommend rest, a healthy diet and avoiding anything that can irritate the liver, such as acetaminophen and alcohol. A few people will need medical care in a hospital because of severe symptoms or abnormal liver function tests. It can take a few months before people with hepatitis A begin to feel better.