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Am Fam Physician. 2006;73(12):2169-2170

See related article on hepatitis A

What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by a virus. Children with the disease may not have any symptoms. Most adults with the disease are ill for up to eight weeks and miss about 30 days of work.

How is this disease spread?

Hepatitis A is spread through feces. You can get infected through close contact with an infected person (for example, changing a diaper or having sexual contact). You also can get infected by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. The virus can live on hands and in water and soil. Hepatitis A is common in developing countries.

How can I tell if I have the disease?

If you have hepatitis A you might get a sudden fever or headache and feel tired. You might not want to eat as much as usual, and you may feel queasy. You may vomit or have stomach pain. Some people with the disease have chills, aching muscles and joints, cough, diarrhea, constipation, or itchy skin.

Later in the disease you may have jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), and your feces may be pale or clay colored. Rarely, the brain can be affected. This can cause confusion, unusual eye and body movements, and even coma.

Your doctor can do a blood test to see if you have the disease. Other things your doctor may look for are a painful and large liver, spleen, or lymph nodes, and a slow heart rate.

How is this disease treated?

There is no medicine to treat hepatitis A. If you have the disease you should rest when you are tired, eat a balanced diet, and avoid alcohol and acetaminophen (one brand: Tylenol). You may need to stay in the hospital for a short time if you get dehydrated or have severe pain, sudden confusion, or bleeding problems.

How long will I be contagious?

You are most contagious soon after you are infected. Adults who are otherwise healthy are no longer contagious two weeks after the illness begins. Children and people with weak immune systems may be contagious for up to six months.

How can I keep from getting this disease?

Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after cooking, after using the bathroom, and after changing diapers.

Before you travel outside the United States, ask your doctor if you should get a hepatitis A shot. You also should get the shot if you use illegal drugs, have anal sex, received clotting factor concentrates, or have liver disease. Children younger than one year should not get the shot.

If you come into contact with someone who has hepatitis A and you have never had the disease or had a hepatitis A shot, you should see your doctor right away. He or she will give you a shot that can help keep you from getting sick.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor.

Hepatitis Foundation International

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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