What is hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a contagious disease that can cause inflammation or swelling of the liver. The illness may last only a few weeks, but some people are seriously ill for up to 6 months. Hepatitis A usually does not cause long-term damage like other types of hepatitis.
Most people with hepatitis A fully recover, but very occasionally it can be severe and result in liver failure.
What causes hepatitis A?
You get hepatitis A by coming in contact with the faeces (poo) of someone with the virus, or through consuming contaminated food, drink or ice. It can also be transmitted through sexual contact.
It is more common in countries or places lacking clean water or sanitation.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?
Symptoms usually start 2 to 4 weeks after you catch the infection.
Some people, especially young children, can have hepatitis A without having any symptoms.
People who do have symptoms may have:
- abdominal pain, especially in the right side of the abdomen (where the liver is)
- nausea/vomiting and loss of appetite
- fever and muscle/joint pains
- dark urine
- clay-coloured poo
- jaundice — a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
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How is hepatitis A diagnosed and managed?
A blood test will confirm whether someone is infected with hepatitis A.
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 should not drink any alcohol while you have hepatitis. Your doctor will advise you what medicines you can take.
If you are diagnosed with hepatitis A, your doctor will need to enter details on the Notifiable Diseases database.
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Can I avoid infecting others?
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
- not preparing food for other people or share eating and drinking utensils
- not sharing linen and towels
- not having sex
If your children have hepatitis A, they should not attend preschool or school during the infectious period as they could spread the illness.
Can hepatitis A be prevented?
The virus can live on hands for several hours and in food left at room temperature for much longer. The virus is resistant to heating and freezing.
To prevent hepatitis A, always wash your hands:
- after going to the toilet
- before consuming or preparing food or drink
- after handling anything with body fluids, such as nappies and condoms
Imported frozen fruit products have been the source of numerous outbreaks of hepatitis A. Cooking these products prior to consuming eliminates the risk of hepatitis A and other potential foodborne infections.
Practising safe sex will also help prevent catching the disease.
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 in the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia at 18 months and 4 years of age.
Other groups that are recommended to have the hepatitis vaccine are:
- people who work in early childhood education and care
- people who live or work in rural and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia or Western Australia
- people with developmental disabilities, and their carers
- plumbers and sewage workers
- people who have anal sex
- people who inject drugs
- people living in correctional facilities
- 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, if needed.
How many doses are required?
2 doses. Aboriginal children living in areas where there is an ongoing presence of hepatitis A are recommended to receive 1 dose at 18 months of age and 1 dose at 4 years.
How is it administered?
Is it free?
Free for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children 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 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
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Last reviewed: April 2021