What is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is an infection caused by a virus. Hepatitis A is the most common cause of acute hepatitis worldwide.

Hepatitis A is spread through the air from person to person, most commonly through the fecal-oral route. It is also spread through contaminated food and water.

This infection is caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). HAV is a member of the Hepadnaviridae family of viruses.

Hepatitis A, which causes acute hepatitis, occurs when the virus enters the body.

Most people are infected with the virus when they are young, between ages 6 and 15. It can also be spread in older adults.

Hepatitis A can also be spread from mother to child during pregnancy or after birth.

Hepatitis A can be spread to people who have no symptoms of the infection. These people are usually not infectious. They can pass the virus to others.

Hepatitis A Symptoms

Symptoms of acute hepatitis A include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes)
  • Light-colored stools (a yellow or orange color)
  • Dark urine

People with chronic hepatitis A may experience the following symptoms:

  • Joint pain
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of muscle tone

A person with chronic hepatitis A may have no symptoms at all.

Some people with acute hepatitis A have symptoms of chronic hepatitis A.

Hepatitis A Causes

Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus. If a person is born with the virus, he or she will always be infected.

However, if someone gets the infection when he or she is younger, the virus may not cause symptoms.

Hepatitis A can be passed to others during:

  • Sexual intercourse
  • Vaginal, anal, or oral sex
  • Childbirth
  • Maternity care
  • Pregnancy

Hepatitis A may also be passed from mother to child during pregnancy.

Hepatitis A can be passed from a mother to her child during delivery. It can also be passed to a baby during breastfeeding.

There is no cure for hepatitis A. However, there are treatments that can help to manage the symptoms of the infection.

Diagnosing Hepatitis A

To diagnose hepatitis A, a doctor will ask about symptoms and examine the person.

If the doctor suspects that a person is infected with hepatitis A, they will do a blood test. The blood test will show if the person has the virus.

The blood test can also show if a person has been exposed to the virus. This is called a serologic test.

A doctor can also do a liver biopsy to determine if the liver has been damaged.

Treating Hepatitis A

Treatment for hepatitis A depends on the severity of the infection.

In most cases, a doctor will treat the acute infection with antibiotics. People may also receive intravenous (IV) fluids to replenish lost fluids.

A doctor may prescribe other medications, such as corticosteroids, to reduce the severity of symptoms.

People who are at risk for hepatitis A may be vaccinated against the infection.

Hepatitis A Complications

People with acute hepatitis A can develop complications.

The most common complication is hepatic failure. A person with acute hepatitis A may develop hepatic failure.

Hepatic failure occurs when the liver cannot handle the amount of toxins that enter the body. This leads to severe symptoms.

Other common complications include:

  • Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen)
  • Hepatorenal syndrome (a kidney problem occurring when the liver is not working properly)
  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (a cancer of the liver)
  • Liver failure
  • Cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)

Prevention and Control of Hepatitis A

The best way to prevent hepatitis A is to prevent exposure to the virus. This can be done by:

  • Avoiding sexual contact with someone who has hepatitis A
  • Avoiding birth control that contains the spermicide nonoxynol-9
  • Avoiding sexual contact with a person who has hepatitis A if there is a risk of exposure
  • Washing hands thoroughly to prevent the spread of the virus

People can also control the spread of hepatitis A by avoiding foods that may be contaminated with the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people avoid eating or drinking:

  • Raw or undercooked shellfish
  • Unpasteurized milk or other dairy products
  • Unpasteurized juices or other fruits
  • Unpasteurized meat

The CDC also recommends that people avoid:

  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables
  • Raw or undercooked meat
  • Raw or undercooked eggs

People can also take other precautions, such as avoiding swimming or bathing in public pools and lakes.

Hepatitis A and the Vaccines

The hepatitis A vaccine is given to people between the ages of 6 months and 65 years. The vaccine is a combination vaccine. It is given as an injection.

The vaccine is most effective if it is given as soon as possible after exposure. Many people who are infected with hepatitis A have not yet been vaccinated.

The vaccine is safe and effective. It has been shown to reduce the risk of infection from hepatitis A by 93 percent.

Outlook for Hepatitis A

Most people with acute hepatitis A will recover without complications.

However, people with chronic hepatitis A may develop complications.

Complications of chronic hepatitis A include:

  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (hepatocellular carcinoma)
  • Hepatic failure

In summary

Acute hepatitis A is an infection that can cause serious complications. It is most common in young children and adults.

Acute hepatitis A can be passed from person to person through the fecal-oral route.

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