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Hepatitis A Basic Information

What is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). Hepatitis A is transmitted when a person ingests the virus from food, drinks, or other objects that have been contaminated by small amounts of stool from an infected person. This can happen through unwashed hands when an infected person prepares food, by close personal contact such as during sex, or caring for someone who is ill. HAV is highly contagious and can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to severe illness lasting several months. Unlike hepatitis B and C, HAV does not cause a long-term, chronic liver infection. Although most people who get hepatitis A are only sick for a few weeks, in rare cases, HAV can cause liver failure and death. This is more common in individuals with existing liver disease and other illnesses often seen in homeless persons.

Most children under 6 years of age do not have symptoms when they get hepatitis A. Older children and adults will usually have symptoms. These will generally clear-up within 2 months of infection and may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Jaundice

Once a person becomes infected with HAV, they develop antibodies that protect them from getting the virus again. The best way to prevent HAV is by getting vaccinated.

How Many People Have Hepatitis A in the U.S. and Around the World?

Since the release of the first vaccine in 1995, HAV infections in the United States have declined by more than 95%. From 2012 through 2016, HAV infections fluctuated because large outbreaks occurred. In 2016, more than 2000 persons were infected with HAV in the United States, an increase from the 2015 report of 1,390 individuals.

Globally, HAV is most common in countries with poor sanitary conditions and hygienic practices and transitional economies according to the World Health Organization.

Who is Most Affected?

In the United States, anyone who has not been vaccinated or previously infected can get HAV. The most common risk factors among people with new HAV infections include: 1) coming in direct contact with persons who have HAV; 2) traveling to countries where HAV infection is more common; 3) drug use (injection and non-injection); 4) homelessness and 5) having sex with an infected person.

For countries where HAV infection is common, the risk factors are poor sanitation and lack of clean, safe drinking water.

How is Hepatitis A Transmitted?

HAV is highly contagious. It is spread primarily when a person ingests the virus from food, drinks, or objects that have been contaminated by small amounts of stool from an infected person; sex with an infected person, particularly if it involves anal-oral contact; and through injection drug use. In crowded, unsanitary conditions, HAV can be spread quickly and cause outbreaks by exposure to contaminated water or food (such as eating raw shellfish from water polluted with sewage).

HAV Prevention

Hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable disease. The hepatitis A vaccine is safe and effective and is usually given in 2 shots with a booster dose following the first in 6-months. Immunization programs can initiate HAV vaccination in the United States for persons 1 year of age and older. Find out if you should get the hepatitis A vaccine and then use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder to help get your hepatitis A vaccine.

Because not all people are vaccinated for hepatitis A, it is important to know that it can also be prevented by maintaining good hygiene and food preparation practices. Hand washing after using the bathroom and before preparing any food along with proper cleaning of surfaces before and after food preparation can help prevent the spread of hepatitis A and other food-borne infections.

Testing

Healthcare providers can diagnose HAV based on a blood test. The blood test will detect antibodies to the hepatitis A virus. In most cases, HAV can be detected in a blood test 5-10 days before symptoms appear. The best way to protect yourself and your family members by getting everyone vaccinated.

People who are at increased risk for HAV should get vaccinated. Individuals who are at higher risk for HAV include those who:

  • Travel to developing countries
  • Have sex with an infected person
  • Are men who have sex with men
  • drug use (injection and non-injection)
  • homelessness
  • Live with or care for someone who has HAV.

Treatment

Unlike treatment for hepatitis B and C, there are no antiviral treatments available for hepatitis A. The best way to prevent hepatitis A infection is by getting vaccinated.

Once a person is infected with HAV, the best way to recover is to rest, drink plenty of fluids, eat a balanced diet, and work with your healthcare provider to manage any nausea. Depending on how severe the infection is, it may take several weeks or even months to fully recover from symptoms of hepatitis A.

Help Raise Awareness about Hepatitis A Outbreaks

Get the latest from CDC about outbreaks in the United States.

Learn More about Hepatitis A

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Viral Hepatitis

National Institutes of Health:

Content created by Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy (OIDP)
Content last reviewed on August 3, 2018