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The facts about hepatitis A

Proper handwashing can help prevent this disease. A vaccine is available as well.

There are many good reasons to wash your hands—and stopping the spread of hepatitis A, a contagious liver disease, is one of them. This disease is often transmitted when someone doesn't wash his or her hands thoroughly after using the bathroom.

Protecting yourself—and others—from hepatitis A is important. While most people who have the disease will recover completely, a few will need to be hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People die from hepatitis A because their livers stop working—this is most common in people 50 or older, and in those who have other liver diseases, such as hepatitis B or C.

Causes

Hepatitis means inflammation—or swelling that occurs after an injury or infection—of the liver. There are several hepatitis viruses, and hepatitis A is one of the most common types, according to the CDC.

The hepatitis A virus is found in large amounts in the feces of anyone infected with it. People can develop a hepatitis A infection if they ingest even the tiniest amount of contaminated feces.

According to the CDC, you might become infected with the virus if you:

  • Change the diapers of an infected baby and don't thoroughly wash your hands afterwards.
  • Have close contact (such as sex) with an infected person who has not thoroughly washed his or her hands after using the bathroom.
  • Eat food prepared by an infected person who didn't thoroughly wash his or her hands after using the bathroom.
  • Drink contaminated water or eat contaminated food.

You won't get hepatitis A from being coughed or sneezed on by an infected person, sitting next to an infected person or hugging an infected person, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Signs and symptoms

Some people with hepatitis A may have a mild illness that lasts only for a week or so, while others may face a severe illness that lingers for months.

Typically, the older a person is, the more severe his or her signs and symptoms are. According to the CDC, those signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fever.
  • Fatigue.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Abdominal (stomach) pain.
  • Joint pain.
  • Dark-yellow urine or clay-colored bowel movements.
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes (called jaundice).

People infected with hepatitis A may have no signs or symptoms at all. This is often true for children under 6, according to the CDC. Even so, people who don't know they are infected can still spread the virus to others.

Diagnosis and treatment

See a doctor right away if you have symptoms that suggest hepatitis A. A blood test can show if you're infected.

If you do have the virus, your doctor will probably advise resting, drinking lots of fluids and eating a balanced diet. Currently, there's no medicine to cure the infection or lessen its severity, though your doctor may be able to give you medicine to ease your symptoms.

While your body fights hepatitis A, get your doctor's OK before you take any medicine—including over-the-counter—or supplements. Some, such as acetaminophen, might damage your liver. And avoid alcohol completely.

Also see a doctor right away if you think you’ve been exposed to the virus—even if you don’t have symptoms. Your doctor can take steps to help keep you from getting sick, such as giving you a medicine called hepatitis A immune globulin. But this medicine has to be taken within two weeks of being infected.

Preventing hepatitis A

One key way to avoid the hepatitis A virus is to always wash your hands in warm, soapy water after using the bathroom or changing a diaper—and before fixing food and eating.

A vaccine that prevents hepatitis A is also available—and it's safe and highly effective, according to the CDC. It's given in two doses, at least six months apart.

All children should be vaccinated between their first and second birthdays, according to the CDC. Children 6 to 11 months old should be vaccinated before traveling internationally. Anyone 1 year of age or older traveling to parts of the world with high rates of the disease should also be vaccinated. So should those who already have a chronic liver disease. The vaccine is also appropriate if you simply want to avoid getting the disease.

reviewed 11/22/2019

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