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Hepatitis A

What Is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). Hepatitis A is also sometimes called infectious hepatitis.

How Do People Get Hepatitis A?

HAV spreads mostly through the feces (poop) of people who are infected. Someone can become infected by eating, drinking, or touching something (such as doorknobs or diapers) contaminated by poop. Childcare centers are a common site of outbreaks.

People also can spread it to others through very close personal contact, such as among sexual partners or drug users who share needles. A person also can catch it when they live with or care for someone who is infected. The virus spreads easily in overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions.

Hepatitis A can still be in feces for several months after the initial illness, especially in babies and younger children.

Since a safe and very effective hepatitis A vaccine became available, infections are less common in the United States and other developed countries that have good sanitation and clean living conditions.

People who haven't been immunized can get a hepatitis A if they:

  • travel to or live in areas where the virus is common (especially developing countries with poor sanitation)
  • live with or care for someone who's infected
  • use illegal drugs
  • have sex with someone who has HAV

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A can be a mild infection, especially in kids younger than 6. Sometimes people have no symptoms and might not ever know that they had an infection. People with no symptoms can still spread the infection to others.

When symptoms do happen, they tend to start 2 to 6 weeks after exposure to the virus and are more likely in adults and kids older than 6. HAV can cause vomiting and diarrhea, as well as fever, loss of appetite, darker than usual urine (pee), jaundice (when the skin and whites of the eyes look yellow), light or grey-colored stools (poop), joint pain, and abdominal (belly) pain.

How Is Hepatitis A Diagnosed?

If needed, doctors can do a blood test to look for HAV antibodies and signs of how well the liver is working. Many mild infections go undetected.

How Is Hepatitis A Treated?

No specific medicines are used to treat hepatitis A. The infection will go away on its own.

Rarely, HAV can cause liver failure, requiring care in a hospital and sometimes even a liver transplant.

What Happens After a Hepatitis A Infection?

Unlike some other hepatitis viruses, hepatitis A rarely leads to long-lasting liver damage. People usually get better within a couple of months, but some people with hepatitis A can feel ill for up to 6 months.

After recovering, a person is immune to the virus for the rest of their life.

Can Hepatitis A Be Prevented?

Yes. The hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for all children over 1 year old. They get a first dose when they're between 12–23 months old, and then a second dose at least 6 months later. Having many young kids vaccinated against HAV can limit the spread of the disease in a community.

The vaccine can be given as early as 6 months of age to babies who will travel to a place where hepatitis A is common (they will still need routine vaccination after their first birthday).

The vaccine also is recommended for older kids, teens, and adults who have never gotten it.

An important way to prevent hepatitis A and many other infections is to wash hands well and often, especially after using the toilet, changing a diaper, and before eating or preparing food.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: May 2022