Vaccinations: Hepatitis A

What is hepatitis A? 

Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). It can last from a few weeks to several months. Unlike hepatitis B and C, hepatitis A does not lead to chronic liver disease. It is rarely fatal but can cause debilitating symptoms and acute liver failure (which can be fatal).

Most people get hepatitis A by ingesting food or water contaminated with fecal matter (even microscopic amounts). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hepatitis A often spreads when: 

  • An infected person does not wash his/her hands properly after going to the bathroom and then touches objects or food
  • A caregiver does not properly wash his or her hands after changing diapers or cleaning up the stool of an infected person
  • Someone engages in sexual activities with an infected person 
Contamination of food can happen at any point: growing, harvesting, processing, handling, and even after cooking. This most often occurs in countries where hepatitis A is common. Waterborne outbreaks are seldom seen in developed countries like the U.S. 

Symptoms of hepatitis A can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, clay-colored bowel movements, joint pain, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), although many children with the virus do not have symptoms. 

Why should I vaccinate my child? 

While hepatitis A still occurs in the U.S., there's been more than a 90% decrease in new infection cases since the vaccine was introduced in 1995. New cases are now estimated around 3,000 a year versus the 234,000 new cases of infection in 1980. Despite this progress, hepatitis A is still one of the most commonly reported vaccine preventable diseases.

When is the vaccine given? 

The CDC recommends that children receive the hepatitis A vaccine at 1 year of age (12–23 months). However, those children who were not vaccinated before the age of 2, or adults who wish to receive the vaccination, can still be vaccinated at any time.

How many doses will my child receive? 

The hepatitis A vaccine is given as two shots, six months apart.

What are the possible side effects? 

Side effects of the vaccine include soreness at the injection site (reported in up to one out of six children), headache (about one in 25), and loss of appetite (about 1 in 12). 

If these side effects occur, they usually last one or two days. Parents are advised to apply a cool, wet washcloth to the sore area. Consult your child's health care provider before giving pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, as two studies suggest that using some painkillers before or at the time of vaccination may lower vaccine effectiveness

If symptoms persist, parents should contact their child’s health care provider right away. 

When should I call a doctor? 

Although they are very rare, serious allergic reactions may occur within a few minutes to a few hours of the shot. Parents should immediately alert their child’s health care provider or call 911 if their child experiences difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, a fast heartbeat, dizziness, fever, or other behavioral changes.

Last updated February 10, 2020

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