Hepatitis A is the least dangerous type of viral hepatitis, but it’s highly contagious. It is usually spread by having close contact with someone who is infected, or eating food or drinking water that is contaminated with feces (stool).
Hepatitis A is caused by a virus that is spread by:
- Eating food that has been improperly handled – someone who has the virus handles your food after using the bathroom without proper hand-washing
- Eating raw shellfish from water contaminated with sewage
- Being in close contact with someone who has the virus
- Having sexual contact with someone who has the virus
Often, hepatitis A improves on its own and you do not need to be hospitalized. It usually doesn’t cause permanent liver damage. However, some people – usually older people – become very ill, need a liver transplant or may die from hepatitis A.
People who are at higher risk for hepatitis A include:
- People who travel to developing countries with high rates of hepatitis A
- Men who have sex with men
- People who are HIV positive
- People who have oral-to-anal sex
- People who have contact with sewage
- People who live or have close contact with a person who has hepatitis A
- People who live in crowded conditions with poor sanitation
- Intravenous drug users or non-injected illegal drugs
- People who receive clotting-factor concentrates as part of medical treatment (hemophilia)
Only about half of the people affected with hepatitis A in the United States have any of the risk factors listed above.
If you have hepatitis A, you may never notice symptoms. When they do happen, symptoms can include:
- Appetite loss
- Muscle pain
- Low fever
- Stomach pain
- Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dark urine or pale feces
If you have symptoms that you cannot explain or that worry you, see your doctor.
Hepatitis A is diagnosed by a blood test.
There is no treatment for hepatitis A. Your liver usually heals itself within a month or two. Your doctor may suggest ways to help with your symptoms.
Until your hepatitis A is gone, you should:
- Avoid alcohol so your liver can rest
- Avoid sexual activity to prevent passing the disease to others
- Avoid cooking for others to prevent passing the disease to them
- Thoroughly wash your hands after using the bathroom or changing a diaper to prevent spreading the disease
How to prevent hepatitis A
People older than 1 year of age should have a hepatitis A vaccination. It’s an initial shot followed by a booster shot six months later. If you didn’t receive the vaccination as a child, you can get the shots as a teen or adult. It’s especially important to be vaccinated if you have higher risk factors.
Proper hand-washing is important to prevent hepatitis A and keep it from spreading.
If you travel to an area that has hepatitis A outbreaks:
- Drink bottled water and use it to brush your teeth; if unavailable, boil tap water
- Ask for beverages to be served without ice
- Wash and peel fruits and vegetables
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked meat and fish