What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis is the term used to describe an inflammation of the liver. Possible complications of hepatitis include yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice), vomiting, and liver failure. Some of the ways that hepatitis can be caused include alcohol abuse, toxins, and autoimmune diseases. However, the most common cause of hepatitis globally is viruses.

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious viral liver infection, which is caused by the hepatitis A virus. This disease usually only occurs in humans, but has also been found in non-human primates such as monkeys, apes, and gorillas. The hepatitis A virus most commonly spreads through food and water contaminated by infected faecal matter (poo), though it can also spread by direct contact with someone who has the virus, including during certain sexual practices.

Hepatitis A is usually a mild infection which may not cause any symptoms at all. Most people who are infected with hepatitis A don’t need any specific treatment and will be able to recover at home with no long-term health complications. In some rare cases, affecting less than 1 in 250 people who are infected, hepatitis A can lead to liver failure.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin
  • Itchy skin

Some people who are infected with hepatitis A won’t show any symptoms at all, especially young children. The symptoms of hepatitis A also get more severe with age, so adults are more likely to display symptoms and feel worse when they have them.

For more in-depth information, read more our page about the symptoms of hepatitis A

How does Hepatitis A spread?

Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus, which is spread through the “faecal-oral route”.  Hepatitis A lives and multiplies in faeces (poo) of infected people, and is passed on when tiny particles of this poo then get into the mouth and are ingested, passing the disease on to another person. This route of transmission is more common in places where there is inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene practices, usually because of limited access to clean water.

The most common way for the hepatitis A virus to spread is via contaminated food and water. This happens when food handlers do not wash their hands after using the bathroom, or wash their hands using water contaminated with the hepatitis A virus. The virus can also get onto fruit and veg if they are washed in contaminated water.

Another way that the hepatitis A virus can spread is during sex. This is more common during sex acts that involve the anus because the hepatitis A virus spreads through contaminated faeces (poo), so there is more risk of direct contact with tiny particles of faecal matter, which can increase the risk of infection.

Who is at risk of hepatitis A?

People in impoverished regions – the transmission of hepatitis A is more common in areas where there is limited access to clean and safe water, which means that there may be inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

Travellers to high-risk areas – travellers visiting regions where hepatitis A is common, or where there is limited access to safe and clean water, are at risk of contracting the virus. Drinking unbottled water, or eating food in establishments that may not be sanitary, increases the risk of infection.

Those with a weakened immune system – conditions that weaken the immune system, or medications that suppress the immune system, can make you more vulnerable to infection. This is because you cannot produce the antibodies necessary to effectively fight off the hepatitis A virus, which can make it easier for the virus to infect you and may allow the infection to develop quicker, or to a more severe stage.

People who have engage in sexual acts involving the anus – the hepatitis A virus spreads when contaminated faeces (poo) is gets into the mouth, so sexual activities such as anal sex, fingering, and oral-anal contact, can increase the risk of becoming infected with hepatitis A.

People that use unsterilised needles – while it is less common than hepatitis B, hepatitis A can also spread through shared or unsterilised needles. Sharing needles to inject drugs, or getting tattooed in unsanitary environments, can introduce the hepatitis A virus directly into your bloodstream and cause an infection. While hepatitis A can spread through contaminated blood, it is more common for the virus to spread through needles that have been handled and contaminated by those with poor hygiene.

What countries have a risk of hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is found globally – the hepatitis A virus is found on almost every continent on the planet, though it is more common in rural areas where there is limited access to clean water and medical aid.

Areas with a higher risk of hepatitis A include:

  • South and Central America
  • The Middle East
  • Africa (excluding South Africa)
  • Eastern Europe
  • Asia

Check before you go – if you’re travelling and want to check if there is a risk of hepatitis A, Superdrug Health Clinics has a handy travel vaccination checker  tool where you can enter your destination in order to find out which vaccinations you may need - including hepatitis A.

How can I avoid getting hepatitis A?

It can be difficult to avoid the hepatitis A virus while travelling, especially if you’re in a rural area. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of getting infected.

Get the hepatitis A vaccine – the most effective way to reduce your chances of getting infected with hepatitis A is to get vaccinated. The hepatitis A vaccine helps you to develop short-term immunity to hepatitis A by allowing your body to develop the antibodies necessary to fight off the virus, without needing to be exposed to the live hepatitis A virus first. One dose of the hepatitis A vaccine protects you for a year. A follow-up a booster at 6-12 months after your first dose protects you for 25 years. You can get the hepatitis A vaccine at any Superdrug Health Clinic in the UK

Only use bottled water – hepatitis A spreads easily through contaminated water supplies. While the water may be safer for locals who may already be immune to hepatitis A, it may be unsafe for you. Making sure you stick to bottled water will significantly reduce your chances of being exposed to the virus.

Avoid ice in your drinks – for the same reasons as why you should only drink bottled water, you should avoid drinks with ice cubes. Ice cubes can be made from contaminated or untreated water, or handled in an unsanitary way, which can get into your drink and cause an infection.

Watch what you eat – you can catch hepatitis A from food contaminated with infected faeces (poo), which can be caused by people who haven’t washed their hands handling your food, or in establishments where food is washed in contaminated water. Unsterile eating utensils, like knives and forks, can also cause an infection if they were cleaned in water contaminated with the hepatitis A virus.

Practise safe sex – hepatitis A can spread during direct contact with someone infected with hepatitis A, including during sexual contact. It is important to use protection while having sex to reduce the chances that you’ll develop an infection, including hepatitis A. This protection can include condoms and dental dams. It is especially important to use protection if you are engaging in sexual acts involving the anus, as there is a higher chance of exposure to contaminated faeces (poo).