Hepatitis A is a virus that infects the liver. The virus causes inflammation of the liver (hepatitis). In the United States about 20,000 – 30,000 people become infected with hepatitis A virus, many of whom are children. Anyone can become infected with hepatitis A virus infection.
Typically, the virus is spread in households from person to person (horizontal transmission), and from contaminated food and water. Infected persons excrete the virus in their stools (poop). When people come in contact with infected stool and do not wash their hands properly with soap and water they can become infected. Children can spread the virus unsuspectingly from poor hand-washing. The virus can even survive on toys and be passed from child to child.
The virus is easily spread in areas that have poor sanitation or poor personal hygiene. In the United States hepatitis A virus is relatively uncommon because the water and sewage treatment facilities in this country are effective in killing most hepatitis A virus that may enter the water supply. However, many countries in the world do not have effective facilities to kill the virus. As a result, many people cntract the infection. Persons traveling to areas in the world where there is a high prevalence of hepatitis A infection should take proper precautions before traveling such as receiving the hepatitis A vaccine.
Often, people who are infected with hepatitis A virus will not have any symptoms. Symptoms of infection may develop over a period of several days. These symptoms may include: yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice), loss of appetite, tiredness, dark urine, nausea, stomach ache, and vomiting. A person can contract the virus but not develop symptoms for almost 30 days. This is referred to as the incubation period. Some people never develop any symptoms. A person infected with hepatitis A virus can spread the virus to another person about one week before symptoms appear and while symptoms are present. Infected people without any symptoms can also transmit the virus. It is thought that children are less likely to develop symptoms as compared to adults.
If you become infected with hepatitis A virus you will experience an acute (short-term) infection. Unlike hepatitis B or C, hepatitis A virus does not cause long-term (chronic) infection and liver damage, like cirrhosis or liver cancer. If you are or become infected with hepatitis A virus after you have recovered from the infection your body produces antibodies which provide lifelong immunity to hepatitis A virus. Therefore you cannot become reinfected with the hepatitis A virus.
Your child's doctor will confirm whether your child is or was infected with the hepatitis A virus by obtaining a blood sample for laboratory evaluation. The doctor will check to see if your child has the IgM antibody to hepatitis A (anti-HAV) positive, or will try to figure out if your child had contact with someone who has a confirmed diagnosis of hepatitis A virus infection.
It is important to always wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, or before preparing and eating food. Good personal hygiene and proper sanitation help prevent the spread of the virus.
A vaccine is available that provides long-term protection against hepatitis A virus infection. The vaccine is administered in two shots or three shots if administered with the hepatitis B vaccine. The current Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendation is that all children should receive the first shot at or after 12 months of age, and the second shot between 15-18 months of age. If you have questions about the vaccine, or if your child has not yet received the vaccine, you should talk with your child's pediatrician. You can also find out more about the vaccine on the Hospital's Vaccine Education Center site.