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Basic Questions and Answers About Hepatitis A

September 2, 2015

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Table of Contents


What Is Hepatitis?

"Hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver. Toxins, certain drugs, some diseases, heavy alcohol use, and bacterial and viral infections can all cause hepatitis. Hepatitis is also the name of a family of viral infections that affect the liver; the most common types are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C.

What Is the Difference Between Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C are diseases caused by three different viruses. Although each can cause similar symptoms, they have different modes of transmission and can affect the liver differently. Hepatitis A appears only as an acute or newly occurring infection and does not become chronic. People with Hepatitis A usually improve without treatment. Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can also begin as acute infections, but in some people, the virus remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long term liver problems. There are vaccines to prevent Hepatitis A and B; however, there is not one for Hepatitis C. If a person has had one type of viral hepatitis in the past, it is still possible to get the other types.

What Is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the Hepatitis A virus. It can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months. Hepatitis A is usually spread when a person ingests fecal matter -- even in microscopic amounts -- from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by the feces, or stool, of an infected person.



How Common Is Hepatitis A in the United States?

In 2013, there were an estimated 3,473 acute hepatitis A infection in the United States.

Is Hepatitis A Decreasing in the United States?

Yes. Rates of Hepatitis A in the United States are the lowest they have been in 40 years. The Hepatitis A vaccine was introduced in 1995 and health professionals now routinely vaccinate all children, travelers to certain countries, and persons at risk for the disease. Many experts believe Hepatitis A vaccination has dramatically affected rates of the disease in the United States.


How Is Hepatitis A Spread?

Hepatitis A is usually spread when the Hepatitis A virus is taken in by mouth from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by the feces (or stool) of an infected person. A person can get Hepatitis A through:

  • Person to person contact
    • when an infected person does not wash his or her hands properly after going to the bathroom and touches other objects or food
    • when a parent or caregiver does not properly wash his or her hands after changing diapers or cleaning up the stool of an infected person
    • when someone has sex or sexual contact with an infected person. (not limited to anal-oral contact)
  • Contaminated food or water
    • Hepatitis A can be spread by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with the virus. (This can include frozen or undercooked food.) This is more likely to occur in countries where Hepatitis A is common and in areas where there are poor sanitary conditions or poor personal hygiene. The food and drinks most likely to be contaminated are fruits, vegetables, shellfish, ice, and water. In the United States, chlorination of water kills Hepatitis A virus that enters the water supply.

Who Is at Risk for Hepatitis A?

Although anyone can get Hepatitis A, in the United States, certain groups of people are at higher risk, such as those who:

  • Travel to or live in countries where Hepatitis A is common
  • Are men who have sexual contact with other men
  • Use illegal drugs, whether injected or not
  • Have clotting-factor disorders, such as hemophilia
  • Live with someone who has Hepatitis A
  • Have oral-anal sexual contact with someone who has Hepatitis A

I Think I Have Been Exposed to Hepatitis A. What Should I Do?

If you have any questions about potential exposure to Hepatitis A, call your health professional or your local or state health department.

If you were recently exposed to Hepatitis A virus and have not been vaccinated against Hepatitis A, you might benefit from an injection of either immune globulin or Hepatitis A vaccine. However, the vaccine or immune globulin must be given within the first 2 weeks after exposure to be effective. A health professional can decide what is best on the basis of your age and overall health.

What Should I Do if I Ate at a Restaurant That Had an Outbreak of Hepatitis A?

Talk to your health professional or a local health department official for guidance. Outbreaks usually result from one of two sources of contamination: an infected food handler or an infected food source. Your health department will investigate the cause of the outbreak.

Keep in mind that most people do not get sick when someone at a restaurant has Hepatitis A. However, if an infected food handler is infectious and has poor hygiene, the risk goes up for patrons of that restaurant. In such cases, health officials might try to identify patrons and provide Hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin if they can find them within 2 weeks of exposure.

On rare occasions, the source of the infection can be traced to contaminated food. Foods can become contaminated at any point along the process: growing, harvesting, processing, handling, and even after cooking. In these cases, health officials will try to determine the source of the contamination and the best ways to minimize health threats to the public.

What Is Postexposure Prophylaxis or PEP?

PEP or postexposure prophylaxis refers to trying to prevent or treat a disease after someone is exposed to it.

Who Should get PEP After Being Exposed to Hepatitis A?

A health professional can decide whether or not a person needs PEP after exposure to Hepatitis A. People who might benefit from PEP include those who:

  • Live with someone who has Hepatitis A
  • Have recently had sexual contact with someone who has Hepatitis A
  • Have recently shared injection or non-injection illegal drugs with someone who has Hepatitis A
  • Have had ongoing, close personal contact with a person with Hepatitis A, such as a regular babysitter or caregiver
  • Have been exposed to food or water known to be contaminated with Hepatitis A virus

If I Have Had Hepatitis A in the Past, Can I Get It Again?

No. Once you recover from Hepatitis A, you develop antibodies that protect you from the virus for life. An antibody is a substance found in the blood that the body produces in response to a virus. Antibodies protect the body from disease by attaching to the virus and destroying it.

Can I Donate Blood if I Have Had Hepatitis A?

If you had Hepatitis A when you were 11 years of age or older, you cannot donate blood. If you had Hepatitis A before age 11, you may be able donate blood. Check with your blood donation center.

How Long Does Hepatitis A Virus Survive Outside the Body?

The Hepatitis A virus is extremely hearty. It is able to survive the body's highly acidic digestive tract and can live outside the body for months. High temperatures, such as boiling or cooking food or liquids for at least 1 minute at 185°F (85°C), kill the virus, although freezing temperatures do not.

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This article was provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Visit the CDC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.



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