Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). Hepatitis A is also called infectious hepatitis.
How Do People Get Hepatitis A?
HAV spreads through the feces (poop) of infected individuals. Someone can become infected by eating, drinking, or touching something (such as doorknobs or diapers) that's been contaminated by poop. Childcare centers are a common site of outbreaks.
HAV can spread:
when people ingest something contaminated with HAV-infected poop (which is why it's easy for the virus to spread in overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions)
in water, milk, and foods (especially shellfish)
Hepatitis A can stay in a person's poop for several months after the initial illness, especially in babies and younger children.
Who Is at Risk for Hepatitis A?
A safe and very effective vaccine against HAV became available in 1995. HAV infections now are rare in the United States and other developed countries with good sanitation and clean living conditions.
People who haven't been immunized can get an HAV infection if they:
travel to or live in countries 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 HAV Infection?
Hepatitis A can be a mild infection, particularly in kids younger than 6. Many people might not ever know that they had an infection.
If someone does have symptoms, they usually start 2 to 6 weeks after the person was exposed to the virus. Someone with HAV might have:
jaundice (when the skin and whites of the eyes look yellow)
abdominal (belly) pain
HAV infections that cause serious symptoms can last for weeks or even months. Some people with HAV can feel ill for up to 6 months.
How Is Hepatitis A Diagnosed?
Doctors can do a blood test to look for HAV antibodies. Many mild HAV 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, usually within a few weeks or months.
In rare cases, HAV can cause liver failure. If that happens, the person will need a liver transplant.
What Happens After a Hepatitis A Infection?
Unlike some other hepatitis viruses, hepatitis A rarely leads to long-lasting liver damage. Within a few weeks, the symptoms will have gone away on their own and the virus won't be in a person's system.
After recovering, a person is immune to the virus for the rest of his or her life.
Can Hepatitis A Be Prevented?
Yes. The hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for all children over 1 year old. Having many young kids vaccinated against HAV can limit the spread of the disease in a community.
The vaccine also is recommended for older kids, teens, and adults who have never gotten it.
If you babysit or take care of young kids, be sure to wash your hands well and often, especially after going to the bathroom or changing a diaper, and before preparing or eating food.