What Is It?
Hepatitis A is a viral infection that can inflame and damage the liver. Unlike other forms of hepatitis, hepatitis A is usually mild, and does not last long. Usually spread in contaminated food or water, hepatitis A also can be passed during sexual practices that involve the anus. In rare cases, hepatitis A can be spread by contact with the blood of a person who has the infection, for instance, when intravenous drug users share needles.
About 30 percent of people in the United States have been exposed to hepatitis A, but only a very small number of them get the disease. Americans most likely to get hepatitis A include:
- People who eat shellfish taken from waters where raw sewage drains
- Children and caregivers in daycare centers who are exposed to the stool of an infected child
- International travelers
If the infection is mild, there may not be any symptoms, especially in a child. When symptoms appear, they can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Tenderness in the stomach area
- Dark, tea colored urine
- Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
Your doctor will ask you whether you have eaten shellfish recently or traveled to a foreign country with poor sanitation. He or she will ask about your personal hygiene habits and whether you have been near someone who has hepatitis A.
Your doctor will exam you to check for swelling and tenderness near your liver, and for a yellowish color of your skin and the whites of your eyes. You will have to have blood tests to confirm the diagnosis and to see whether your liver has been damaged.
Hepatitis A usually lasts two to eight weeks, although some people can be ill for as long as six months. The infection is likely to last longer in people who are older or are in poor health.
You can reduce your risk of getting hepatitis A by following these basic guidelines:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap after handling food, after using the bathroom, and before eating.
- Buy shellfish only at reputable food stores or restaurants.
- If you catch your own shellfish, make sure that it comes from waters inspected regularly by health authorities.
- If you are traveling to a developing country, avoid drinking or eating food or water that could be contaminated, and get vaccinated for hepatitis A before your trip.
- Avoid injecting illegal drugs. Outbreaks of hepatitis A have been seen among intravenous drug users.
If you have been exposed to someone with hepatitis A, your doctor may give you an injection of a medicine called hepatitis A immune globulin to prevent you from getting the illness. However, you have to have this injection within two weeks of being exposed for it to work.
A vaccine to protect against hepatitis A is available for people who are at high risk of being infected, and for those with existing liver disease, who may become severely ill if they develop hepatitis A. People at high risk include:
- Travelers to developing countries
- Sexually active homosexual men
- People who require transfusion of products that contain blood for bleeding disorders
- Research workers who handle the hepatitis A virus in the laboratory
There are no drugs to treat hepatitis A. Doctors generally recommend bed rest, eating well-balanced meals, drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding alcoholic beverages. It is also essential to avoid medications that can be toxic to your liver, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol).
When To Call A Professional
Call your doctor if you suspect that you have been exposed to someone with hepatitis A or if you are showing symptoms of the illness. If you are planning to travel to a foreign country, ask your doctor whether you should be vaccinated against hepatitis A before your trip.
Nearly everyone who gets hepatitis A will recover completely within a few weeks to months. A very small number of people can get severe disease and, in very rare cases (less than one-tenth of 1 percent of patients), the disease can cause liver failure, which can result in death.
Diseases and Conditions Center
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.