Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Many things can cause it. One of the causes is infection with a virus called the hepatitis A virus (HAV). This virus can spread through food or water. It can also spread directly from person to person. This could happen if someone does not wash his or her hands after coming in contact with infected stool. (For example, after using the bathroom or changing a dirty diaper.) HAV often spreads in daycare settings, restaurants, and places with poor sewage treatment. In most cases, the virus doesn’t make children very sick. It may cause flulike symptoms. But it likely won’t cause long-term problems.
Symptoms usually appear about 2 to 6 weeks after exposure to the virus. Symptoms are often mild in children. They include:
Pain in the upper right abdomen (where the liver is)
Tiredness and weakness
Sore muscles and joints
Upset stomach, vomiting, or diarrhea
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, dark urine, or light-colored stools)
The doctor asks questions to determine when the child may have been exposed to HAV. The child’s blood is tested for HAV. Other tests may be done to see how healthy the liver is and to look for signs of damage.
There is no cure for hepatitis A. The virus will run its course. Treatment focuses on making the child comfortable and treating symptoms (the same way you would treat flu symptoms). These include:
Giving the child plenty of fluids to help prevent dehydration. Good choices are water or a child’s electrolyte solution. Moderate amounts of fruit juice are also OK.
Making sure the child gets plenty of rest.
Checking with the child’s doctor before using any over-the-counter medications. The liver processes all medications. A child with hepatitis A may not be able to take certain medications.
A child with hepatitis A can spread the virus to others, even before symptoms appear. He or she can continue to spread the virus for a few days after symptoms start. Here are some precautions you can take to prevent HAV from spreading:
Adults and children should wash hands often, and always after using the bathroom or changing diapers and before preparing food and eating. To wash your hands or your child’s hands, work up a good lather with soap and warm water. Scrub for at least 10 to 15 seconds, then rinse.
Keep a sick child home from school or daycare until symptoms are gone.
Have your child and others in the household vaccinated against viral hepatitis. The hepatitis A vaccine is safe for any adult or child over age 1. Once a child has hepatitis A, he can’t get it again. But he could get another type of hepatitis. And getting vaccinated soon after exposure to HAV could prevent illness. Members of the household should be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B (another type of hepatitis virus), if they haven’t been already. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C or the other less common types of hepatitis.
In rare cases, hepatitis A can lead to a serious infection and liver failure. If a child has another liver problem, hepatitis A could make it worse. In most cases, though, hepatitis A does not cause any lasting problems in children.
If your child has been diagnosed with hepatitis A, the following can be signs of a more serious problem. Call the doctor if the child:
Has signs of dehydration: decreased urination; very dark urine; dry mouth; refusal to drink fluids; no tears when crying
Is extremely irritable or drowsy
Has swelling in the hands, arms, feet, ankles, abdomen, or face
Bleeds from the nose, mouth, or rectum, or has bloody stools
Bruises more easily than normal