Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver caused by exposure to toxins, alcohol abuse, immune diseases, or infection. Viruses cause the majority of cases of hepatitis. Hepatitis A is a type of hepatitis that is caused by the hepatitis A virus. This is an acute (short-term) type of hepatitis, which usually requires no treatment.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1.4 million cases of hepatitis A occur around the world each year. This highly contagious form of hepatitis can be spread through contaminated food or water. Luckily, it generally isn’t serious and usually causes no long-term effects. A hepatitis A infection usually goes away on its own.
Children under the age of 6 typically show no symptoms when they contract the virus. Older children, teens, and adults usually develop mild symptoms, which can include:
- flu-like symptoms (fever, fatigue, body aches)
- abdominal pain (especially right upper quadrant)
- light-colored stool
- dark urine
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight loss
- jaundice (yellowing of skin or eyes)
Symptoms usually appear 15 to 50 days after you contract the virus.
People develop hepatitis A after contracting the hepatitis A virus (HAV). This virus is typically contracted after ingesting food or liquid contaminated with fecal matter containing the virus. Once ingested, the infection spreads through the bloodstream to the liver, where it causes inflammation and swelling.
In addition to transmission from eating food or drinking water containing HAV, the virus can also be spread by close personal contact with an infected person. HAV is contagious, and a person who has hepatitis A can easily pass the disease to others living in the same household.
You can contract hepatitis A by:
- eating food prepared by someone with the hepatitis A virus
- eating food handled by preparers who do not use strict hand washing routines before touching food that you eat
- eating sewage-contaminated raw shellfish
- having unprotected sex with someone who has the hepatitis A virus
- drinking polluted water
- coming in contact with hepatitis A-infected fecal matter
If you contract the virus, you will be contagious even two weeks before symptoms appear. The contagious period will end about one week after symptoms appear.
Hepatitis A is usually spread from person to person, making it highly contagious. However, certain factors can increase your risk of contracting it, including:
- living in (or spending an extended time in) an area where hepatitis A is common, including most countries with poor sanitation standards or a lack of safe water
- injecting or using illegal drugs
- living in same household as someone who is hepatitis A positive
- having sexual activity with someone who is hepatitis A positive
- being HIV positive
The WHO reports that more than 90 percent of children living in countries where there are poor sanitation standards will have had a hepatitis A infection by age 10.
After you discuss your symptoms with your doctor, they may order a blood test to check for the presence of a viral or bacterial infection. A blood test will reveal the presence (or absence) of the hepatitis A virus.
Some people have only a few symptoms and no signs of jaundice. Without visible signs of jaundice, it’s hard to diagnose any form of hepatitis through a physical examination. When symptoms are minimal, hepatitis A can remain undiagnosed. Complications due to a lack of diagnosis are rare.
In extremely rare cases, hepatitis A can lead to acute liver failure. This complication is most common in older adults and people who already have chronic liver disease. If this occurs, you will be hospitalized. Even in cases of liver failure, a full recovery is likely. Very rarely, a liver transplant is required.
There is no formal treatment for hepatitis A. Because it is a short-term viral infection that goes away on its own, treatment is typically focused is on reducing your symptoms.
After a few weeks of rest, the symptoms of hepatitis A usually begin to improve on their own. To ease your symptoms, you should:
- avoid alcohol
- maintain a healthy diet
- drink plenty of water
With rest, your body will most likely recover completely from hepatitis A in a matter of weeks or a few months. Usually there are no negative long-term consequences of having the virus.
After contracting hepatitis A, your body builds immunity to the disease. A healthy immune system will prevent the disease from developing if you are exposed to the virus again.
The number one way to avoid getting hepatitis A is by getting the hepatitis A vaccine. This vaccine is given in a series of two injections, six to 12 months apart. If you are traveling to a country where sanitation and hygienic practices are substandard, get your vaccination at least two weeks before traveling. It usually takes two weeks after the first injection for your body to start building immunity to hepatitis A. If you’re not traveling for at least a year, it’s best to get both injections before leaving.
To limit your chance of contracting hepatitis A, you should also:
- thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water before eating or drinking, and after using the restroom
- drink bottled water rather than local water in developing countries, or in countries where there’s a high risk of contracting hepatitis A
- dine at established, reputable restaurants, rather than from street vendors
- avoid eating peeled or raw fruit and vegetables from a country with poor sanitation standards or unhygienic conditions