What is hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is an infectious illness that attacks the liver and can cause inflammation or swelling of the liver.
You get hepatitis A by coming in contact with someone with the virus, or through consuming contaminated food, drink or ice. The food or drinks would need to be contaminated by the poo of an infected person. It can also be transmitted through sexual contact.
It's more common in countries or places lacking clean water or where there are risky hygienic practices, such as people not washing their hands after using the toilet.
The illness may last only a few weeks, but some people are seriously ill for up to 6 months. Hepatitis A usually doesn't cause long-term damage like other types of hepatitis can. Most people with hepatitis A fully recover.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?
Symptoms usually start 2 to 4 weeks after you pick up the infection.
Some people, especially young children, can have hepatitis A without having any symptoms.
People who do have symptoms may have:
- abdominal pain
- nausea/vomiting and loss of appetite
- fever and muscle/joint pains
- pain in the right side of your abdomen (where your liver is)
- dark urine
- clay-coloured poo
- jaundice — a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
Some people get their symptoms back within a few months, but after that most people recover completely and develop immunity.
How is hepatitis A diagnosed and managed?
A blood test will confirm the virus.
There is no medicine to treat hepatitis A. Your doctor may suggest rest, plenty of fluids and relief for any nausea or pain.
To protect your liver, you shouldn't drink any alcohol while you have hepatitis. Your doctor will advise you what medicines you can take.
If you have hepatitis A, you are infectious and can spread the illness. This infectious period lasts from about 2 weeks before the symptoms appear to a week or so after they go away.
While you are infectious, you need to take precautions to prevent spreading the infection to other people including:
- touching people as little as possible
- do not prepare food for other people or share eating and drinking utensils
- do not share linen and towels
- do not have sex
If your children have hepatitis A, they should not attend preschool or school during the infectious period as they could spread the illness.
If you are diagnosed with hepatitis A, your doctor will need to enter details on the Notifiable Diseases database.
Can hepatitis A be prevented?
The virus can live on your hands for several hours and in food left at room temperature for much longer. The virus is resistant to heating and freezing. Washing your hands carefully after going to the toilet, before preparing food and before eating helps prevent infection.
Practising safe sex will also help.
If someone in your house has hepatitis A, you should discuss with your doctor whether you should have an immunoglobulin injection, which gives short-term protection against some diseases.
You can be effectively vaccinated against hepatitis A. Your doctor may suggest you be vaccinated if you're planning to visit a region where hepatitis A is common, including some overseas countries. In those regions, you should avoid food and drinks that may include or be washed in contaminated water.
The vaccine is also recommended for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 12 months to 24 months who live in Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia or South Australia and people who live or work with rural or remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Other groups that are recommended to have the hepatitis vaccine are:
- people who work in early childhood education and care
- people with developmental disabilities, and their carers
- plumbers and sewage workers
- people who have anal sex
- people who inject drugs
- people with long-term liver disease and people who have had a liver transplant
- people living with hepatitis B or hepatitis C
Hepatitis A vaccine
Vaccination is your best protection against hepatitis A. This table explains how the vaccine is given and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines, so talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you.
|What age is it recommended?||From the age of 12 months.|
|How many doses are required?||2 doses, 6 months apart. Aboriginal children living in areas where there is an ongoing presence of hepatitis A are recommended to receive 1 dose at 12 months of age and 1 dose at 18 months.|
|How is it administered?||Injection|
|Is it free?||
Free for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged between 12 months and 24 months who live in Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia or South Australia. For everyone else there is a cost.
Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.
|Common side effects||The vaccine is very safe. Common side effects include a headache, tiredness, and pain where the needle went in.|
Resources and support
- For more information about hepatitis A, visit the Department of Health’s hepatitis A web page.
- If you need to know more about hepatitis A, or need advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: May 2020