Causes of hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is caused by a virus. If you get infected with this virus, it causes inflammation of the liver.

The hepatitis A virus lives in poo. It spreads when children or adults come into contact with objects, food or water that have been contaminated by an infected person’s poo.

Hepatitis A isn’t common in Australia. It’s very common in poorer countries, especially where there are no good sewerage systems. This means it’s a particular risk if you’re travelling to those countries.

Hepatitis A symptoms

The hepatitis A virus infects a person 1-2 months before any symptoms appear – this is called the ‘incubation period’. This long incubation period can make it hard to know exactly when the infection happened.

Children with hepatitis A usually have milder symptoms than adults. In fact, most children with hepatitis A, especially very young children, don’t have many symptoms. It’s possible for them to have hepatitis A without you realising. Other children with hepatitis A can be very sick and will need to go to hospital, but this isn’t common.

When hepatitis A symptoms do happen, they can appear quite suddenly. They include general symptoms like tiredness, fever, nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Later, the child’s skin might feel very itchy, and her tummy might be a little swollen and sore, especially over the upper right side where the liver is. After several days, your child’s wee might turn dark yellow or brown, and her skin and eyes might go a yellowish colour. This is called jaundice.

Children with hepatitis A usually get better after a week or two, but it can take longer than this. Hepatitis A infection doesn’t usually last very long, unlike hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections.

When to see a doctor about hepatitis A symptoms

You should take your child to the GP if your child:

  • develops yellow skin or eyes
  • has very dark brown urine
  • has tummy pain that continues longer than a few days
  • has an unexplained rash.

If your child has any of the above symptoms, or if you think you or your child might have come into contact with the hepatitis A virus, see your doctor.

Tests for hepatitis A

If your GP thinks that your child might have a hepatitis A infection, the GP will ask for blood tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Hepatitis A treatment

There’s no cure for hepatitis A, so treatment aims at improving symptoms.

If your child has diarrhoea or has been vomiting, it’s important to make sure he drinks lots of fluids to avoid dehydration.

Don’t give your child paracetamol without first checking with your doctor. If your child’s liver isn’t working properly because of a hepatitis A infection, it might be damaged by normal doses of paracetamol.

If your child’s symptoms are severe, she might need to go to hospital. This is quite unusual.

Prevention of hepatitis A

In any part of the world, but especially in places without good sewerage systems, the key to preventing hepatitis A is good hygiene, such as washing your hands after going to the toilet.

Immunisation against hepatitis A is recommended if you’re travellingto places where there might be a high risk of coming into contact with hepatitis A. These places might include developing countries and also isolated communities in tropical Australia.

It’s a good idea to discuss travel immunisation for hepatitis A with your GP at least 1-2 months before you travel. Your GP can give your child the hepatitis A immunisation. The GP can also give you advice about food and water safety while you’re travelling, and tell you how to avoid other diseases like malaria.

Travel immunisation clinics can also give you advice and all of the immunisations your child needs for travel.

You usually need to pay for a hepatitis A travel immunisation.

Immunisation program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
Hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and funded as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 12-24 months living in Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia. This is because these children have a higher risk of catching hepatitis A.

If your child is in this group, go to your local Aboriginal health clinic, doctor or other immunisation provider. The vaccine – that is, the immunisation medicine – is free. You might have to pay the GP for giving your child the vaccine.

Your child will get this immunisation in two injections, at least six months apart.