Hepatitis A

Key points

  • Hepatitis A is an infection of the liver caused by a virus
  • You catch the hepatitis A virus from contaminated food or water or from an infected person
  • It is very contagious – you can easily catch it and give it to others
  • Hepatitis A can make you feel very ill, but it’s usually not serious
  • Symptoms usually clear up with no treatment, but it can take a few weeks
  • Very rarely, hepatitis A can cause sudden liver failure
  • Anyone with liver disease should be vaccinated for hepatitis A

What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is an infection of the liver caused by a virus

You can catch the hepatitis A virus from eating or drinking contaminated food or water, or from close contact with an infected person.

Like other forms of hepatitis, hepatitis A harms the liver. But it’s not usually serious and should clear up by itself. It does not usually cause long-term liver damage or last a long time.

However, in some people it can cause sudden liver failure. If this happens, you will need to be admitted to hospital.

Hepatitis A is rare in Australia because most people who are at risk are vaccinated. Sometimes there is a rare outbreak linked to contaminated food.

Most Australians who get hepatitis A catch it overseas. Having a hepatitis A vaccination before travelling overseas will protect against infection.


What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

Symptoms start 2 to 4 weeks after you catch the virus. Adults usually have worse symptoms than children. Children often don’t have many symptoms.

Symptoms can come on suddenly. They include:

  • feeling tired and weak
  • fever
  • feeling sick (nauseous) or vomiting
  • not feeling hungry
  • diarrhoea
  • itchy skin
  • swollen and sore belly, especially on the upper right side (where the liver is)
  • dark yellow or brown wee
  • grey or clay-coloured poos
  • yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • pain in the joints

The symptoms usually last a few weeks. But if someone has a severe illness, they can be sick for several months.

See your doctor if you or your child have jaundice, very dark wee, a tummy ache that doesn’t go away or a rash.

Read more about the symptoms of liver disease

How is hepatitis A diagnosed?

Hepatitis A is diagnosed with a blood test.

Read more about liver tests

Why did I catch hepatitis A?

The hepatitis A virus is spread in poo from an infected person. You only need a tiny amount of poo to get in your mouth.

Hepatitis A is usually spread through:

  • contaminated water
  • food washed in contaminated water
  • raw shellfish that come from water with sewage in it
  • an infected person handling food after they have been to the toilet or changed a nappy

There are sometimes outbreaks of hepatitis A in certain types of food (like berries or shellfish) or at certain restaurants. It is more common in places where there is poor sanitation.

You can also catch hepatitis A from close contact with someone who has it. For example, you can get it from oral or anal sex with an infected person.


Can I prevent hepatitis A?

It is very important for anyone with liver disease to protect themselves from hepatitis. That’s because hepatitis A can be more serious in someone with liver disease.

The best way to protect yourself against hepatitis A is to get vaccinated. If you are diagnosed with a liver condition, you should get vaccinated as soon as possible. If you’re also at risk of hepatitis B, you can get a combined hepatitis A/hepatitis B vaccine.

The vaccine is very effective and you only need to have one course of 2 injections. You can get it from your doctor.

Hepatitis A vaccination is recommended for:

  • everyone who has a liver disease
  • people with other medical conditions or developmental disabilities
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia (it is free for these children)
  • people whose might catch hepatitis A at work
  • anyone over 1 year of age who is going to travel to an area where hepatitis A is common
  • people whose lifestyle increases their risk of acquiring hepatitis A

See your doctor right away if you think you have been in contact with someone who has hepatitis A. For example, you might live with or have sex with an infected person. Or you might eat at a restaurant where there is a hepatitis A outbreak.

An injection of an antibody called immunoglobulin can stop you getting sick. But you need to get it in the first 2 weeks after you were exposed to the virus.

If you are travelling to a third world country, you can protect yourself from hepatitis A.

  • Get vaccinated before you travel.
  • Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables in bottled water and peel them yourself.
  • Don’t eat eat raw or undercooked meat and fish
  • Only drink and clean your teeth with bottled water or boiled water.
  • Avoid ice or any drinks that might have water in them.

If you have hepatitis A, it’s important to protect others.

  • Don’t prepare or share food.
  • Don’t share eating utensils.
  • Don’t share towels or linen.
  • Don’t have sex.
  • Wash everything you use in hot, soapy water.

Your doctor can advise you on whether you can go to work or school/childcare. You are usually infectious for about 2 weeks after symptoms start.

Always wash your hands thoroughly after going to the toilet and before preparing or eating food or drink!

 


How is hepatitis A treated?

There is no medicine for hepatitis A. The best thing is to rest, drink plenty of fluids, eat well and avoid alcohol.

Anyone with any form of liver disease should protect their liver by:

  • being a healthy weight
  • eating a balanced diet and limiting intake of high sugar-containing and ultraprocessed foods
  • doing more physical activity
  • managing high blood pressure and cholesterol
  • reducing further harm to your liver from alcohol

You should talk to your doctor about what medicines, supplements or herbal medicines it’s safe to take. These can also put extra strain on your liver.

Your doctor can recommend medicine to help with the itching if you have it. They may also suggest you get vaccinated for hepatitis B.

Read more about liver treatments

Additional information and support


What next?

Read more about living well

 

References

American Liver Foundation. Hepatitis A

Australian Department of Health & Aged Care. Hepatitis A vaccine

Australian Department of Health & Aged Care. Hepatitis A

Australian Immunisation Handbook. Hepatitis A

Australian Institute of Health & Welfare. Hepatitis A in Australia. (PDF fact sheet)

Hepatitis Australia. Hepatitis A.

Mayo Clinic. Hepatitis A

NSW Health. Hepatitis A fact sheet

Raising Children Network. Hepatitis A

World Health Organization. Hepatitis A

Reviewed November 2022

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