Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Oct 09, 2018
Last Modified Date: Oct 09, 2018
Published Date: Aug 23, 2017
Hepatitis A: What You Need To Know About This Viral Liver Disease
Hepatitis A is a disease that affects the liver, caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). It is a contagious disease that has been on the decline in the United States and other developed nations since the introduction of a hepatitis A vaccine in 1995, although an estimated 25,000 new cases still occur annually. The disease is much more common in developing areas, such as Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, where vaccination is not as widespread.
What Is Hepatitis A?
The term hepatitis means liver inflammation, which can be caused by some drugs, many toxins, regular, excessive use of alcohol, certain diseases and health conditions, as well as infections – both viral and bacterial. Hepatitis A is one of a family of viral infections that, collectively, are the most common cause of hepatitis. Unlike other common forms of viral hepatitis, such as hepatitis B and C, hepatitis A presents only as an acute infection, rather than a chronic disease, one that clears without treatment in the majority of patients. That acute infection can range from a mild illness that lasts a few weeks to a severe one that lasts several months.
How is Hepatitis A Spread?
The hepatitis A virus is found in the stool of an infected individual. It is spread to others when they come into contact with that stool, most often microscopic particles that make their way into water or food or onto surfaces. For instance, outbreaks have happened in groups of people who have eaten at restaurants with an infected employee who has failed to wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, transmitting the virus into foods they handle. Another frequent venue for transmission of the virus is day care centers, where children may get feces on their hands, then touch toys and other items that other children may put in their mouths during play. Additionally, daycare workers may spread the disease if hands aren't thoroughly washed after contact with soiled diapers.
Hepatitis A Symptoms
Hepatitis A often presents no symptoms in those infected or very mild ones. About 70 percent of children under the age of 6 display no symptoms from the virus, or experience very mild, flu-like symptoms from the infection, and when they do become ill, the infection typically runs its course in less than 2 months. Approximately 30 percent of older children and adults who become infected with hepatitis A will have no symptoms, but about 70 percent will develop symptoms that can include:
- Jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
- Muscle aches or soreness
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Dark, concentrated urine
- Light, clay colored stools
Symptoms of hepatitis A typically appear 2 to 7 weeks after infection with the virus. Illness can last anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months. Once a person recovers from hepatitis A, they develop a natural immunity to the virus that, in most, provides lifelong protection against becoming reinfected.
The most efficient means of preventing hepatitis A infection is vaccination, which is done in a series of 2 injections. While vaccination is a good idea for everyone, it is especially important in those who suffer from any form of liver disease, people who work in higher-risk environments, such as health care workers and daycare employees, and anyone who travels to developing nations where the disease is prevalent. If you aren't sure whether you have been vaccinated, blood testing can determine your immunity status by detecting antibodies – or the lack of them – to hepatitis A in your blood.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Hepatitis A diagnosis begins with an evaluation of any symptoms present. If infection is suspected, blood tests are typically ordered, which may include liver function testing, as well as a blood test to look for antibodies that indicate infection. Treatment generally consists of rest, fluids and a nutritious diet to help your body fight the infection, along with close monitoring of liver function by your health care team. For most, the infection will clear without further treatment, but in a small percentage of people with especially severe cases of hepatitis A or who have preexisting liver problems, hospitalization may be necessary to ensure against complications as the liver heals.