Hepatitis means “inflammation of the liver.” This inflammation can be caused by a wide variety of toxins, drugs, and metabolic diseases, as well as infection. There are at least 5 hepatitis viruses.
Hepatitis A is contracted when a child eats food or drinks water that is contaminated with the virus or has close contact with a person who is infected with the virus. Hepatitis A is present in the stool as early as 1 to 2 weeks before a person develops the illness.
The infection can be spread in child care settings when caregivers do not wash their hands after changing the diaper of an infected baby or from infant to infant because most very young infants do not wash their hands or have their hands washed for them. This virus also can be spread during male homosexual activity. The incubation period is 2 to 6 weeks.
Signs and Symptoms
Hepatitis symptoms tend to be similar from one virus type to another. Many of these symptoms are flu like, such as fever, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and tiredness, sometimes with pain or tenderness of the liver in the right upper abdomen. A hepatitis infection is also associated with jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin and a yellowish color to the whites of the eyes. This is caused by inflammation and swelling of the liver with blockage and backup of bile (bilirubin) into the blood. This backup also usually causes the urine to turn dark orange and stools light yellow or clay colored.
However, many children infected with the hepatitis virus have few if any symptoms, meaning you might not even know that your child is sick. In fact, the younger the child, the more likely she is to be symptom free. For example, among children infected with hepatitis A, only about 30% younger than 6 years have symptoms, and most of them are mild. Symptoms are more common in older children with hepatitis A, and they tend to last for several weeks.
When to Call Your Pediatrician
If your youngster has developed any of the symptoms associated with hepatitis, including jaundice, or if she has had contact with someone who has hepatitis (eg, in a child care center), call your pediatrician.
What You Can Do
In most cases, no specific therapy is given for acute hepatitis. The child’s own immune system will fight and overcome the infecting virus. Your pediatrician will recommend supportive care for your child, which can include rest, a well-balanced diet, and lots of fluids.
Do not give your child acetaminophen without talking to your pediatrician first—there is a risk of toxicity because her liver may not be fully functioning. Your pediatrician may also want to reevaluate the dosages of any other medicines your child is taking. They may have to be adjusted because of changes in the liver’s ability to manage the current dosages.