- Hepatitis A is a virus found in human faeces (poo).
- It’s usually passed on through contaminated food and water, but it’s also a sexually transmitted infection (STI) passed on by having sex without a condom or dental dam (particularly anal sex), fingering and rimming, or sharing sex toys with someone who has the virus. You can also get it if you share contaminated needles and syringes.
- Hepatitis A can be prevented by being careful where you eat and drink; practising safer sex, including using male and female condoms, dental dams and latex gloves; never sharing needles and syringes; and/or having a hepatitis A vaccination.
- A simple blood test carried out by a healthcare professional will show whether you have hepatitis A.
- There is no treatment for hepatitis A - it usually clears up on its own.
If you’ve had unprotected sex, or you’re worried about hepatitis A or other STIs, get tested as soon as possible – even if you haven’t got any symptoms.
What is hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A (also known as hep A or HAV) is part of a group of hepatitis viruses that causes inflammation of the liver – which is when your liver becomes swollen and painful.
Usually hepatitis A isn’t serious and it only lasts around 10 to 14 days. However, it’s important to get tested to make sure you haven’t got a more serious condition with similar symptoms, such as hepatitis B or C, or cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver.
How do you get hepatitis A?
The virus needs to get from human faeces (poo) into the mouth to infect someone. You only need to be in contact with small amounts of poo to become infected.
Hepatitis A can be passed on very easily and you can get it if you:
- eat food prepared by someone with the virus who hasn't washed their hands properly in clean water.
- drink dirty water (including ice cubes).
- eat raw or undercooked shellfish from dirty water.
- are in close contact with someone who has hepatitis A.
- less commonly – have sex without a condom or dental dam with someone who has the virus (even if they don’t have symptoms), particularly if you have anal sex, are fingering, rimming or fisting – exploring their anus (bottom) with your fingers, mouth or tongue; or touching used condoms and sex toys that have been in someone else’s anus (bottom).
- share contaminated needles and syringes during recreational drug use (also less common).
Hepatitis A, HIV and sexual health
- Having an STI, including hepatitis A increases your risk of getting HIV. This is because most STIs cause sores or lesions that make it easier for HIV to enter the body. Some people will have both hepatitis A and HIV, which is known as co-infection.
- If you’re living with HIV and also have hepatitis A, your viral load is likely to increase because your immune system is weaker. This will make you more likely to pass on HIV if you have sex without a condom.
- People living with HIV may stay sick with hepatitis A for longer than people who haven’t got the virus.
- Many HIV drugs (antiretrovirals), as well as medicines used to treat other conditions, are processed in the liver. If you have hepatitis A it’s likely that your liver will be swollen, so it may not be able to process other medicines properly, which could lead to side effects or worse side effects than usual.
- Some people need to stop taking their HIV drugs or other medicines when they have hepatitis A, but these decisions need to be taken with your doctor.
If you’re living with HIV or at risk of HIV, for example, if you’re a man who has sex with men, sell sex or use drugs, ask your healthcare professional if you should have a hepatitis A vaccination.
If you’re worried about HIV infection, find out everything you need to know in our HIV Transmission and Prevention section
How do I protect myself against hepatitis A?
- Wash your hands each time you go to the toilet, before you prepare or eat food, after coughing or sneezing, or handling rubbish or other dirty items.
- Peel and wash all your fresh fruit and vegetables; don't eat raw or undercooked meat and fish; avoid all drinks if you’re not sure if they’re safe – with or without ice. If tap water isn’t safe and bottled water isn't available, boil tap water before drinking it.
- Practise safer sex:
- Know the status of your sexual partners.
- Use a new male (or external) or female (or internal) condom or dental dam every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex.
- Use a new dental dam or latex gloves for rimming and fingering (exploring your partner’s anus with your fingers, mouth or tongue) or use latex gloves for fisting.
- Cover sex toys with a new condom and wash them after use.
- Avoid sex that involves contact with faeces (poo).
- Wash your hands after touching someone’s anus (bottom) or handling used condoms and sex toys.
- Never share needles and syringes or other items that may be contaminated with the virus.
- Limit the number of sexual partners you have, remember to use a new condom for each partner, and have regular STI tests.
- Have the hepatitis A vaccine (where available) if you’re in close contact with someone with hepatitis A or if you’re in a high-risk group.
High-risk groups include men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs. You may also be exposed to hepatitis A through your work, for example, sewage workers, staff in institutions where levels of personal hygiene may be poor (such as a homeless shelter) and people working with animals that may be infected with hepatitis A.
Remember – apart from condoms, other types of contraception such as the contraceptive pill don’t protect you from sexually transmitted infections.
Ask your doctor or healthcare professional if you need further advice on how to protect yourself and your partner’s from HIV and STIs.
What do hepatitis A symptoms look like?
Many people with hepatitis A don’t have any symptoms. If symptoms do develop, you’ll usually notice them around four weeks after infection. These symptoms will usually pass within two months.
Symptoms for women and men include:
- flu-like symptoms, including tiredness, a fever and aches and pains
- loss of appetite
- feeling and/or being sick
- pain in the upper right part of your tummy (abdomen)
- dark urine and pale faeces (poo)
- yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- itchy skin.
Can I get tested for hepatitis A?
Yes – a simple blood test carried out by a healthcare professional will show whether you have the virus.
If you’ve got hepatitis A you should be tested for other STIs. It’s important that you tell people you live with or have close contact with, and your recent sexual partner/s so they can also get tested and treated.
Many people who have hepatitis A don’t notice anything wrong, and by telling those you’re in close contact with you can help to stop the virus being passed on. It can also stop you from getting the infection again.
How is hepatitis A treated?
There isn’t a specific treatment for hepatitis A, and most people will recover fully within a one to two months. Usually symptoms are managed at home with plenty of rest; and painkillers and/or medication to help with itchiness, nausea or vomiting may be prescribed.
Whether you’ve got symptoms or not, don’t prepare food for others or have sex until you’re told by a healthcare professional that you’re no longer infectious.
Once you’ve recovered from hepatitis A you’re immune – this means you can’t get it again, but you can get other types of hepatitis such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C, which are more serious.
Complications of hepatitis A
- As with most STIs, hepatitis A puts you at risk of other STIs, including HIV.
- Unlike other types of viral hepatitis, hepatitis A does not normally cause long-term liver damage and doesn't become a long-term (chronic) illness.
- Occasionally hepatitis A can last longer and, in rare cases, it can be life-threatening if it causes the liver to stop working properly (liver failure).
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