Hepatitis A
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Hepatitis A

En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition

Hepatitis A is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus.

Hepatitis

© 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

Causes

Hepatitis A virus is usually found in the stool (bowel movement) of people who have the infection. It is spread by:

  • Putting something in your mouth that has been infected with the hepatitis A virus
  • Drinking water contaminated by raw sewage
  • Eating food contaminated by the hepatitis A virus, especially if it has not been properly cooked
  • Eating raw or partially cooked shellfish contaminated by raw sewage
  • Sexual contact with a partner infected with the hepatitis A virus, particularly anal sex

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

Risk factors include:

  • Having close contact with an infected person although the virus is generally not spread by casual contact
  • Using household items that were used by an infected person, but were not properly cleaned
  • Having sex with multiple partners
  • Having sex with a partner who has hepatitis A
  • Traveling to or spending long periods of time in a country where hepatitis A is common or where sanitation is poor
  • Injecting drugs, especially if you use shared needles
  • Working as a childcare worker, changing diapers or toilet training children
  • For children, being in daycare centers
  • Being institutionalized
  • For hemophiliacs, receiving plasma products

Symptoms

Hepatitis A does not always cause symptoms. Adults are more likely to have symptoms than children.

Symptoms include:

  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Darker colored urine
  • Light or chalky colored stools
  • Rash
  • Itching
  • Muscle pain

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.

Tests may include:

  • Blood test—to look for hepatitis A antibodies (proteins that your body has made to fight the hepatitis A virus)
  • Liver function studies
  • Liver biopsy—removal of a sample of liver tissue to be examined, only done in severe cases

Treatment

There are no specific treatments for hepatitis A. The goals of hepatitis A treatment are to:

  • Keep the patient as comfortable as possible
  • Prevent the infection from being passed to others
  • Prevent more liver damage by helping the patient avoid substances (eg, medications, alcohol) which might stress the liver while it's healing

The disease generally will go away without treatment within 2 to 5 weeks. However, about 15% of people who are infected by hepatitis A will have relapsing symptoms for up to 9 months. In almost all cases, once you recover, there are no aftereffects, and you are immune to the virus.

In rare cases, hepatitis A infection will be so severe that a liver transplant may be needed.

Prevention

Proper Sanitary Habits

  • Wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom or changing a diaper.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before eating or preparing food.
  • Carefully clean all household utensils after use by a person infected with hepatitis A virus.
  • Avoid using household utensils that a person infected with hepatitis A may touch.
  • Avoid sexual contact with a person infected with hepatitis A.
  • Avoid injected drug use, especially with shared needles.
  • If you travel to a high risk region, take the following precautions: drink bottled water, avoid ice chips, wash the fruits well, and eat well-cooked food.

Immune (Gamma) Globulin

This is a preparation containing antibodies that provides temporary protection from hepatitis A (about 1 to 3 months). It must be given before exposure to the virus or within two weeks after exposure.

Hepatitis A Vaccine

This vaccine is made from inactive hepatitis A virus and is highly effective in preventing infection. It provides full protection four weeks after the first injection. (The hepatitis vaccine takes a month to become fully effective.) A second injection provides protection lasting up to 20 years.

The vaccine is recommended for:

  • People who have a chronic liver disease or a clotting factor disorder
  • People who have close physical contact with those who live in areas with poor sanitary conditions
  • People traveling to countries where sanitary conditions are poor
  • Children who live in areas that have repeated hepatitis A epidemics
  • People who inject illicit drugs
  • Men who have sex with men

Check with your doctor to see if you should receive the vaccine, and if so, when and how many injections you should have.

RESOURCES:

American Liver Foundation
http://www.liverfoundation.org

Hepatitis Foundation International
http://www.hepfi.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Institute for Health Information
http://www.cihi.ca/cihiweb/

Canadian Liver Foundation
http://www.liver.ca/Home.aspx

References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov .

Hepatitis Foundation International website. Available at: http://www.hepfi.org .

The Merck Manual of Medical Information . Simon and Schuster, Inc.; 2000.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse website. Available at: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ .



Last reviewed November 2007 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.


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