Hepatitis A

Get Adobe Flash player
The liver is an organ that is part of our digestive system. It helps us get rid of toxins, digest food, and store energy from food.

What is hepatitis?

The liver is an organ that helps the body digest food. It also removes waste and toxins, and stores energy. Hepatitis means that there is inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection, drugs (including alcohol), toxins or parasites. Hepatitis affects the liver’s ability to function well.

There are several types of viruses that lead to hepatitis . This page is about hepatitis A, the most common type affecting children.

Signs and symptoms of hepatitis A

In young children, most hepatitis A infections are mild. Children may not show any signs or symptoms.

Older children may show some of the following signs and symptoms:

  • extreme tiredness
  • flu-like symptoms of fever, headache, and weakness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • abdominal discomfort
  • pain in the area of the liver on the right side beneath the lower ribs
  • poor appetite
  • dark urine
  • muscle pain
  • itching
  • yellowing of skin and eyes (jaundice)

Causes of hepatitis A: contaminated food and drink

People usually catch the hepatitis A virus when they swallow small amounts of fecal matter (stool) in food or drink. Most often, this means drinking contaminated water, or eating foods that have not been washed properly. Foods such as raw or undercooked shellfish, fruits or raw vegetables, are the most common source. The hepatitis A virus then infects the liver.

Here are some common ways children are infected by the hepatitis A virus:

  • When someone handles the food your child eats without properly washing their hands after changing diapers or going to the washroom.
  • By drinking contaminated water, including ice cubes.
  • By eating seafood from contaminated water.
  • By exchanging bodily fluids with an infected person.

Treatment of hepatitis A: bed rest and fluids

Your doctor will advise you on how to take care of your child at home. Let your child rest and stay in bed if he is tired and weak. Offer your child many small servings of water to prevent dehydration, especially if your child is vomiting. If your child has been exposed to Hepatitis A but has not started to show symptoms, then the doctor may give Hepatitis A Immune Globulin which substantially lowers the chances that your child could become infected. It needs to be given within two weeks of exposure.

Your child’s body will likely clear the virus on its own with rest and hydration. Most children will heal in 1 or 2 months with no permanent damage to the liver. Less than 1% of children could develop liver failure as a result of Hepatitis A.

With other forms of viral hepatitis such as Hepatitis B, a chronic (ongoing) infection may develop that does not resolve.

Preventing hepatitis A with vaccine and proper hygiene

A vaccine is now available to prevent hepatitis A and B infection. It is approved for use in children starting at age one and it is delivered in 2 doses. Your doctor may suggest that the rest of the family get immunized to stop the virus from spreading. Adults are often more severely affected compared to children. Washing hands thoroughly, ensuring that food is cooked properly, under hygienic conditions, can also help stop the virus from spreading.

Your doctor may also suggest the vaccine for your family if you are planning to visit a country where the disease is widespread.

Key points

  • Hepatitis prevents the liver from functioning well.
  • The hepatitis A virus is the most common type in children.
  • Symptoms include flu-like symptoms and pain in the area of the liver on the child's right side beneath the lower ribs.
  • Children can get Hepatitis A by eating or drinking contaminated foods.
  • Under a doctor’s care, your child’s liver will heal in 1 or 2 months with no long-term damage.
  • You can protect your family from hepatitis A and B by getting the proper vaccination.
Elly Berger, BA, MD, FRCPC, FAAP, MHPE​​