INFECTIOUS DISEASE CENTER

What Is Hepatitis A?

By Michele C. Hollow @michelechollow
 | 
September 25, 2017

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. It’s a viral infection that can be mild or severe. To learn what is hepatitis A, continue reading.

Hepatitis is the name given to a group of viral infections that directly affect the liver. The most common types are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. All of these types of Hepatitis can be caused by heavy alcohol use, certain drugs, toxins, and bacterial and viral infections.

 

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What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a virus that can damage your liver. It ranges in severity from mild to debilitating. The length of the illness also varies from a few short weeks to several months.

How do you get hepatitis A?

You can get hepatitis A by ingesting the virus from contact with objects, food, or drinks that are contaminated by the feces of an infected person. If an infected person touches or shares food, drinks, or other objects with you, you can get hepatitis A.

It’s also spread by:

  • Sexual contact with an infected person.
  • A parent or caregiver who changes a child’s diaper or cleans up the stool of an infected person and doesn’t properly wash his hands.
  • Eating or drinking food or water that’s contaminated with the virus. This includes frozen or undercooked foods and fruits, vegetables, shellfish, ice, and water that contains the virus.
  • Hepatitis A can also enter the water supply. Here in the U.S., our water is treated with chlorine, which kills the virus.

To understand what is hepatitis A, you should also know a bit about hepatitis B and hepatitis C. All three are caused by viral infections and, while they can cause similar symptoms, they affect your liver differently.

What is the difference between hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C?

  • Hepatitis A shows up as an acute or newly occurring infection. It’s not chronic. The good news is that hepatitis A can be cured without treatment.
  • Hepatitis B and C can begin as acute infections. However, the virus stays in your body, making it a chronic disease that can cause long-term liver problems.
  • Hepatitis A and B can be prevented with a vaccine.
  • There are no vaccines to prevent hepatitis C.
  • If you have one type, it’s possible to develop the other types.

If you want to know what is hepatitis A, you should know the symptoms of liver disease, which can occur between two and six weeks after exposure.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

Some people with inflammation of the liver have no symptoms. However, the following symptoms of hepatitis A include:

  • Fever
  • Feeling exhausted
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark colored urine
  • Bowel movements that produce clay-colored feces
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice of the skin or eyes

It’s important to note, since many people do not have the above mentioned symptoms of hepatitis A, it’s possible to still spread the disease. Hepatitis A can also be transmitted by an infected person up to two weeks before any symptoms appear.

How serious is hepatitis A?

The good news is that most people recover without any lasting liver damage. In severe but rare cases, liver failure can lead to death.

At its height, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were an estimated 2,500 acute cases of hepatitis A infection in the United States. It’s at an all-time low since the vaccine was introduced in 1995.

How do you prevent hepatitis A?

At the moment, there is no treatment for hepatitis A. In severe cases, people with hepatitis A are hospitalized. The best form of prevention is to frequently wash your hands with warm water and soap after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, or before preparing food.

To prevent it in the first place, get vaccinated with the hepatitis A vaccine. It’s recommended for children (who get vaccinated when they turn age 1), travelers visiting countries where hepatitis A is common, men who have sexual contact with other men, users of illegal drugs, and people with chronic liver diseases such as hepatitis B or C.

How is the hepatitis A vaccine administered?

People who receive the hepatitis A vaccine will be given two shots six months apart. The vaccine is also available to people ages 18 years and older as three shots, over a period of six months. The vaccine takes between two and four weeks to take effect.

Are there any side effects?

The hepatitis A vaccine is safe. There are no serious side effects. Some patients complain of having a sore arm for a few hours after being injected.

If you had hepatitis A in the past, you cannot get it again because of your body’s antibodies that protect you from a recurrence.

 

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Updated:

September 25, 2017

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN