What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a liver disease that is caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver and there are many types of this condition. Hepatitis A is very contagious. In fact, it was previously called infectious hepatitis.

How common is hepatitis A?

In the U.S. in 2017, there were about 6,700 reports of hepatitis A infection. This was the year that large person-to-person outbreaks began occurring among certain populations, such as those using drugs and those experiencing homelessness.

How do you get hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A can be spread by sexual contact with an infected person or close personal contact (like taking care of an infected person). However, it is most often spread by what scientists call the ‘fecal-oral’ route. This happens when one person eats or drinks something that has small amounts of fecal matter (stool) from another person who has hepatitis A. This can happen by touching something that has the virus on it and then putting your hands in your mouth. It can happen when food is grown, picked, processed or served. Water can also be contaminated.

Mothers do not pass on hepatitis A in breast milk. You cannot be infected with HAV by sitting near to or hugging someone with hepatitis A. It does not spread through coughs or sneezes.

Who is likely to be affected by hepatitis A?

Certain people are more at risk than others for hepatitis A. These include:

  • People who use recreational drugs, both injected and non-injected types.
  • Men who have sex with men.
  • People who have close contact with someone who already is infected.
  • People who have close contact with someone adopted from a country where hepatitis A is common, or people who travel to countries where hepatitis A is common.
  • People who work with non-human primates.
  • People who have clotting factor issues, including hemophilia.
  • People who work in child care, or children who are in childcare.

What causes hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). The virus is spread when one person ingests (puts into their mouth) tiny unseen pieces of fecal matter from an infected person. It takes about two to seven weeks after exposure to the virus for symptoms to start.

Water and ice can be contaminated with HAV. Raw shellfish from contaminated water can cause hepatitis A, as can other foods that are not cooked, such as fruits and vegetables.

When will symptoms appear after you have been exposed to HAV?

It generally takes about 4 weeks for symptoms to appear, but they can start at 2 weeks or they can start up to 8 weeks after you have been exposed. You probably won’t get every symptom immediately, but they tend to emerge over days.

Also, you can have no symptoms and have the virus and be contagious. Children especially may be free of symptoms despite being infected.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

Symptoms of hepatitis A may include:

  • Fever.
  • Fatigue, joint pain.
  • Stomach pain, vomiting, loss of appetite.
  • Diarrhea, stools that are light in color (‘normal’ stools are shades of brown).
  • Jaundice, which means that skin and eyes are yellow. This happens primarily to older children and adults. Kids younger than 6 years old do not generally have jaundice.
  • Urine that is dark yellow in color.

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