What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

The early symptoms of hepatitis A include:

  • feeling tired or run-down (fatigue)
  • aching muscles
  • joint pain
  • mild fever
  • headache
  • loss of appetite
  • stomach pain, specifically in the upper right area (where the liver is)
  • feeling and/or being sick
  • bowel problems, such diarrhoea

The early symptoms of hepatitis A usually last for a few weeks, and most people start to feel better within 3 weeks of symptoms appearing. Children may not  have any symptoms at all, but symptoms are common in adults and tend to get more severe with age. However, some people may develop more advanced symptoms of hepatitis A.

Later (more developed) symptoms of hepatitis A include:

  • yellowing of eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • itchy skin
  • dark yellow urine
  • pale or “clay-coloured” faeces (poo)

How long does it take for the symptoms of hepatitis A to appear?

Symptoms of hepatitis A typically appear between 15 to 50 days after being infected with the hepatitis A virus, with an average incubation period of 28 days.

For most people, hepatitis A is asymptomatic, meaning that you can be infected and spread the virus without showing any signs or having any symptoms at all. This is most common in younger children: around 70% of children under 6 show no symptoms of hepatitis A even though they are infected with the virus. However, only around 30% of adults with hepatitis A will not have any symptoms.

How long do symptoms of hepatitis A last?

If you develop symptoms of hepatitis A, you can expect to experience these symptoms for a few weeks. Most people will start to feel better within 3 weeks, and can usually expect the symptoms to completely clear up within 2 months without any complications or long-term effects.

Around 10% to 15% of people who develop hepatitis A symptoms will experience long-term illness, which can last for up to six months. In these cases the symptoms of hepatitis A may come and go as your body fights off the virus, rather than the symptoms always being present.

Fortunately, hepatitis A is not a chronic (lifelong) infection. This means that the virus will eventually clear from the body as your immune system fights it off, and it will not return after you have beaten it. In fact, after being infected with hepatitis A and successfully fighting the virus off, you will develop a lifelong immunity to future hepatitis A infections.

What are the complications of hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A doesn’t normally cause any serious health complications, and most people will make a full recovery without suffering any long-term effects. However, in some rare cases, Hepatitis A can prevent the liver from functioning properly and cause liver failure. This is very rare, and affects less than 1 in 250 people who are infected with hepatitis A.

Signs of liver failure include:

  • random bleeding, such as nosebleeds and bleeding gums
  • bruising easily
  • confusion and irritability
  • struggling to remember or concentrate on things
  • extreme tiredness
  • yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice) gets worse
  • severe vomiting

Liver failure can be life-threatening and may require a liver transplant, so if you experience any of the signs or symptoms above then you should get in contact with a medical professional or go to A&E as soon as possible.

How are the symptoms of hepatitis A treated?

Currently there is no cure for the hepatitis A virus, so treatment for hepatitis A is focused on supporting the body and treating the symptoms while the immune system fights off the infection. Fortunately, hepatitis A is usually a mild infection that will clear up on its own over time, and does not typically need any specific treatment.

Living with hepatitis A can cause discomfort, but there are some things that you can do to help relieve the symptoms of hepatitis A.

Get plenty of bed rest – hepatitis A can leave you feeling tired and rundown with flu-like symptoms as your body fights off the virus. One of the best things to do to help you recover more quickly is to rest up and conserve your energy so your immune system can fight off the virus more effectively.

Stay hydrated – hepatitis A can lead to dehydration if you are sweating, vomiting, and have diarrhoea, so it is important to replenish those lost fluids and drink enough water. Being properly hydrated also means that your body is in better condition to fight off the virus and helps you to overcome your symptoms more quickly.

Painkillers can help – hepatitis A symptoms include aching or painful muscles, which can be relieved by painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. It is important not to take any medication that can put a strain on your liver, so you should get advice from your GP before you take any medication – even medications you can buy over-the-counter.

Don’t drink alcohol – alcohol is a toxin that is normally processed safely by your liver. Hepatitis stops your living from functioning to its full capacity, so drinking alcohol while you are infected with hepatitis can be dangerous and cause severe damage to your liver.

Medical attention or hospitalisation is only required in very rare cases of hepatitis A, where the symptoms have progressed to a dangerous stage. If you are concerned about your symptoms, seek urgent medical attention

Medical treatment for the symptoms of hepatitis A includes:

Intravenous fluids – severe cases of hepatitis A may lead to dehydration, which can have a significant impact on liver function, so it may be necessary to use an IV drip to replace the fluids that are lost from vomiting and diarrhoea.

Antiemetic medication – if a patient is feeling very nauseous and is vomiting often, antiemetic medicines such as metoclopramide may be prescribed to help to relieve these symptoms. Antiemetics are drugs which help to relieve feelings of nausea and reduce the need to vomit.

How can I prevent the symptoms of hepatitis A?

Get the hepatitis A vaccine – the hepatitis A vaccine provides protection from the hepatitis A virus for a year, which can be extended to 25 years if you get a booster dose at 6-12 months. The hepatitis A vaccine is an inactivated vaccine, which means that it doesn’t contain any traces of the live hepatitis A virus. This allows the body to create antibodies necessary to fight off the hepatitis A virus without requiring you to become infected first. You can get the hepatitis A vaccine at any Superdrug Health Clinic in the UK.

Practise good hygiene – hepatitis A spreads when tiny particles of contaminated faeces (poo) gets into your mouth. Because the virus can live on surfaces for over a month, you can easily pick up the virus without knowing it and infect yourself when you touch your mouth. Regularly washing your hands will kill the virus and reduce the chance that you will get infected, or spread the virus to others.

Don’t eat or drink in unsanitary conditions – food or drinks that are prepared in unsanitary conditions could be carrying the hepatitis A virus, especially in areas where hepatitis A is common. If you are travelling to area where there is not adequate sanitation, be sure to drink bottled water as local water supplies may be contaminated with the virus.