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HEPATITIS A

What is hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a serious liver disease caused by a virus. Hepatitis A is spread by household or sexual contact with a person who is infected with hepatitis A virus or by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. Over 100,000 people in the United States are estimated to be infected with hepatitis A virus each year.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?
Many people who get hepatitis A do not develop symptoms. Only 30% of children under 6 years of age develop symptoms while 70% of people 6 years of age or older develop symptoms.

If a person does develop symptoms, they might include fever, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal pain, dark urine, and/or jaundice (yellow eyes and skin). These symptoms can last up to six months. With or without symptoms, people with hepatitis A virus infection can still spread the disease to others.

How serious is hepatitis A?
Between 11 and 20% of people with hepatitis A require hospitalization. Adults who become ill are often out of work for several weeks. There are approximately 100 deaths each year in the United States from hepatitis A virus infection.

Who should get hepatitis A vaccine?
If you fall into any of these groups, you should consult with your doctor or public health clinic about getting vaccinated against hepatitis A.

  • people who travel to or work in countries outside of the continental U.S. (Call your local or state public health department to find out the level of hepatitis A risk for your geographic destination.)
  • children over two years old who live in communities with high rates of hepatitis A virus infections or in communities with periodic outbreaks of hepatitis A. (For more information, contact your local health department.)
  • men who have sex with men
  • street drug users
  • people with chronic liver disease
  • hemophiliacs
  • people working with hepatitis A virus in an experimental lab setting
  • people with clotting factor disorders

How safe is hepatitis A vaccine?
Research has shown hepatitis A vaccine to be safe and effective. Hepatitis A vaccine has been used in Europe and Asia in over one million people and studied in the United States since the 1980s. Hepatitis A vaccine is approved for use in the United States.

Does the vaccine have side effects?
The most common side effects are mild and may include pain and redness at the injection site. Fever, headache, and tiredness are less common. These symptoms, if they occur, last for only a short time.

How many shots are needed?
Children and adults need two shots of hepatitis A vaccine. 90% of people will be protected after the first shot but you will need the additional shot for long-term protection. Your doctor or nurse will tell you when to return for the next dose. (Hepatitis A vaccine is currently not approved for use in children under 2 years of age.)

What should I do if I think I've been exposed to hepatitis A?
If you think you have been exposed to hepatitis A virus because a household member or a sexual contact developed hepatitis A, consult your physician or health department. You may need a shot called immune globulin that can protect you after having been exposed to hepatitis A virus. (You may also need hepatitis A vaccine for future protection.) If you become ill with hepatitis A, you need to get information from your doctor on how to take care of yourself. Your household and sexual contacts will need immune globulin and possibly hepatitis A vaccine.

If I've been vaccinated against hepatitis B, will this protect me from hepatitis A?
No! Hepatitis B and hepatitis A are different diseases. Hepatitis B vaccine will not protect you from hepatitis A.

What else can I do to prevent hepatitis A?
Washing your hands helps stop the spread of many diseases including hepatitis A. Even if you get hepatitis A vaccine, keep washing your hands! Make sure you always wash your hands with soap and water after using the toilet, after changing diapers, before preparing foods, and before eating.

How is Hepatitis A treated?  Most cases of Hepatitis A get better on their own.  You may need to rest in bed for several days or weeks, and you won't be able to drink alcohol until you are well. The doctor may give you medicine for your symptoms.

(Adapted from the Immunization Action Coalition website and from NIH materials)