Hepatitis A Clinical Presentation

Updated: May 08, 2019
  • Author: Richard K Gilroy, MD, FRACP; Chief Editor: BS Anand, MD  more...
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Along with outlining the presenting complaint and its severity and sequelae, the history should also initiate a search for the source of exposure (eg, overseas travel, lack of immunization, intravenous [IV] drug use) and attempt to exclude other possible causes of acute hepatitis (eg, accidental acetaminophen overdose). The incubation period is 2-6 weeks (mean, 4 wk). Shorter incubation periods may result from higher total dose of the viral inoculum.

Discussion focusing on excluding other potential causes should be undertaken early in order to guide further investigation. Not every patient with fever, hepatomegaly, and jaundice has hepatitis A virus (HAV) infection. Some of the important differential diagnoses for acute hepatitis warrant early and specific management.


In the prodrome, patients may have mild flulike symptoms of anorexia, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, malaise, low-grade fever (usually < 39.5°C), myalgia, and mild headache. Smokers often lose their taste for tobacco, like persons presenting with appendicitis.

Icteric phase

In the icteric phase, dark urine appears first (bilirubinuria). Pale stool soon follows, although this is not universal. Jaundice occurs in most (70%-85%) adults with acute HAV infection; it is less likely in children and is uncommon in infants. The degree of icterus also increases with age. Abdominal pain occurs in approximately 40% of patients. Itching (pruritus), although less common than jaundice, is generally accompanied by jaundice.

Arthralgias and skin rash, although also associated with acute HAV infection, are less frequent than the above symptoms. Rash more often occurs on the lower limbs and may have a vasculitic appearance.

Relapsing hepatitis A

Relapsing hepatitis A is an uncommon sequela of acute infection, is more common in elderly persons, and is characterized by a protracted course of symptoms of the disease and a relapse of symptoms and signs following apparent resolution (see Complications).


Physical Examination

The physical examination focuses on detecting features that support a diagnosis of acute hepatitis and should include an assessment of features of chronic liver disease and, similarly, assessment of any evidence of decompensation.

Hepatomegaly is common. Jaundice or scleral icterus may occur. Patients may have a fever with temperatures of up to 40°C.