Hepatitis A

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Inflammation causes soreness and swelling. Hepatitis can be caused by many things. Hepatitis is most commonly caused by one of the six hepatitis viruses (A, B, C, D, E or G). All types of hepatitis cause inflammation of the liver, which interferes with its ability to function. Lack of blood supply to the liver, poison, autoimmune disorders, excessive alcohol use, an injury to the liver and taking certain medicines can also cause hepatitis. Less commonly, viral infections such as mononucleosis or cytomegalovirus can cause hepatitis.

There are 2 main kinds of hepatitis, acute hepatitis (short-lived) and chronic hepatitis (lasting at least 6 months). If you have acute hepatitis, the liver might become inflamed very suddenly and you might have nausea, vomiting, fever and body aches. Or you may not experience any symptoms. Most people get over the acute inflammation in a few days or a few weeks. Sometimes, however, the inflammation doesn't go away. When the inflammation doesn't go away in 6 months, the person has chronic hepatitis.

How does hepatitis affect the liver?

The liver breaks down waste products in your blood. When the liver is inflamed, it doesn't do a good job of getting rid of waste products. One waste product in the blood, called bilirubin (say "billy-roo-bin"), begins to build up in the blood and tissues when the liver isn't working properly. The bilirubin makes the skin of a person who has hepatitis turn a yellow-orange color. This is called jaundice (say "john-dis"). Bilirubin and other waste products may also cause itching, nausea, fever and body aches.

What is hepatitis A?

There are 6 viruses that cause hepatitis. Each hepatitis virus is named with a letter of the alphabet: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, hepatitis D, hepatitis E and hepatitis G. Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus.

Hepatitis A causes inflammation of the liver, which leads to soreness and swelling. Hepatitis A is different from other types of hepatitis because it isn't typically as serious and doesn't develop into chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis like hepatitis B and C can.

How is hepatitis A spread?

Hepatitis A is typically spread through contact with infected feces. You can get infected through close contact with an infected person (for example, changing a diaper or having sexual contact), even if that person does not have any symptoms. In fact, hepatitis A is most contagious before symptoms appear. You can also get infected by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. The virus can live on hands, in water and in soil. Hepatitis A is common in developing countries.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

The hepatitis A virus is usually in your system for one month before symptoms appear.

When symptoms do appear, they can appear suddenly and include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice (the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • Low-grade fever (fever up to 102 degrees)
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in your abdomen, especially on your right side
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle pain

It is important to remember that some people who have the hepatitis A never develop any symptoms.

Young children are likely to have very mild cases of hepatitis A, while symptoms in older children and adults are more likely to be severe.

See your doctor is you have any of these symptoms. He or she can do a blood test to see if you have hepatitis A.

How is hepatitis A treated?

There is no specific medicine to treat or cure hepatitis A. If you have the virus, you should get plenty of rest, eat a balanced diet and avoid alcohol and acetaminophen (one brand: Tylenol). Both alcohol and medicines like acetaminophen are broken down by the liver and may increase the speed of liver damage in people who have hepatitis.

Talk with your doctor about any other over-the-counter medicines you are taking, as they may need to be changed or stopped while you have the virus.

You may need to stay in the hospital for a short time if you get dehydrated, have severe pain, suddenly become confused or develop bleeding problems.

How long will I be contagious?

You are most contagious soon after you are infected and before symptoms appear. Adults who are otherwise healthy are no longer contagious 2 weeks after the illness begins. Children and people who have weak immune systems may be contagious for up to 6 months.

How can I keep from getting hepatitis A?

Ask your doctor about the hepatitis A vaccine. The shot is safe for anyone over 2 years of age and can provide protection for up to 20 years.

Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after cooking, after using the bathroom and after changing diapers.

Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating and avoid raw or undercooked meat and fish.

If you come into contact with someone who has hepatitis A and you have never had the virus or the vaccine, you should see your doctor right away. He or she can give you a shot that will help keep you from getting sick.

More Information

For more information talk to your doctor.

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Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff.

Hepatitis A by SC Brundage M.D., M.P.H. and AN Fitzpatrick, M.P.H. (American Family Physician June 15, 2006, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20060615/2162.html)

Reviewed/Updated: 02/09
Created: 06/06