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Patient education: Hepatitis A (The Basics)
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Patient education: Hepatitis A (The Basics)
Written by the doctors and editors at UpToDate
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Mar 31, 2017.

What is hepatitis A? — Hepatitis A is an infection that harms the liver. The liver is a big organ in the upper right side of the belly (figure 1).

Hepatitis A is caused by a virus. When people have hepatitis A, the virus leaves their body in their bowel movements. If infected people do not wash their hands after they use the bathroom, they can have the virus on their hands. Then they can spread the virus to anything they touch, including food, water, and other people.

People all over the world can get hepatitis A.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A? — In children, hepatitis A does not usually cause any symptoms. In adults, hepatitis A causes a flu-like illness that starts suddenly about a month after a person is infected.

At first, symptoms usually include:

Feeling tired

Nausea or vomiting

Having no appetite

Fever higher than 100.4°F (38°C)

Pain under the ribs on the right side of the belly

Later on, symptoms usually include:

Dark-colored urine

Light-colored bowel movements

Jaundice, which is when the skin or white part of the eyes turn yellow

Itchy skin

Rarely, hepatitis A can cause liver damage that can lead to death.

How do people get hepatitis A? — People can get hepatitis A after they eat food or drink water with the virus in it. People can also get it if they touch something that has the virus on it and then touch their food or put their hands in their mouth.

Is there a test for hepatitis A? — Yes. To check if you have hepatitis A, your doctor or nurse will do an exam and blood tests.

How is hepatitis A treated? — Most of the time, the infection will get better on its own. But there are things you can do at home to help your liver heal. You can:

Get plenty of rest – Do not return to work or school until your fever is gone, your appetite is back, and your skin and eyes are no longer yellow.

Avoid drinking alcohol

Avoid certain medicines – Your doctor or nurse will tell you which prescription and over-the-counter medicines to avoid.

In rare cases, people need to be treated in the hospital.

When will I feel better? — It can take a few months to feel better. Most people are completely better within 6 months of getting infected. Hepatitis A does not lead to lifelong liver problems.

Can hepatitis A be prevented? — Yes. To help prevent getting or spreading hepatitis A, you can:

Wash your hands after going to the bathroom, changing diapers, and touching garbage or dirty clothes. Also, be sure to wash your hands before preparing food and eating.

Get the hepatitis A vaccine – Vaccines can prevent certain serious or deadly infections. Doctors recommend that adults get the hepatitis A vaccine if they have a higher than normal chance of getting the infection. This includes adults who plan to travel to certain countries or have certain medical conditions.

Make sure that your child gets the hepatitis A vaccine – Doctors recommend that all babies get the hepatitis A vaccine as one of their routine childhood vaccines.

Pay attention to food safety (table 1):

Don't drink unpasteurized milk or foods made with it

Wash fruits and vegetables well before eating them

Keep the refrigerator colder than 40°F (4.4°C) and the freezer below 0°F (-17.8°C)

Cook meat and seafood until well done

Cook eggs until the yolk is firm

Wash hands, knives, and cutting boards after they touch raw food

What if I live with or was with someone who has hepatitis A? — If you live with or were with someone who has hepatitis A, let your doctor or nurse know as soon as possible. If you never got the hepatitis A vaccine, you might need to get it. Or your doctor might give you a shot of medicine to help prevent you from getting the infection.

You can catch hepatitis A from someone who is infected and is not yet having symptoms. You can also catch it from someone who has symptoms until the week after they develop jaundice (which is when the skin or white part of the eyes turn yellow).

More on this topic

Patient education: Staying healthy when you travel (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for travel (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for babies and children age 0 to 6 years (The Basics)
Patient education: Food poisoning (The Basics)
Patient education: Hepatitis B (The Basics)
Patient education: Hepatitis C (The Basics)

Patient education: Hepatitis A (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: General travel advice (Beyond the Basics)

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