Basics & Facts
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about 3,600 cases of hepatitis A are reported annually. Though it’s not widespread by any means, it’s still important to understand this virus, especially if you plan to travel to developing countries. Learn more about how hepatitis A is spread, what symptoms it causes and how it can be prevented in this article.
Hepatitis A is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver. It is usually contracted through contaminated food or water. Most cases of hepatitis A are mild and the body typically gets rid of the virus on its own. There is an effective vaccine available for hepatitis A. Good hygiene habits are another good deterrent for contracting the virus.
Symptoms & Types
Hepatitis A is one of several types of hepatitis viruses which affect the liver. This particular virus usually doesn’t cause any symptoms to appear until a few weeks after it has been contracted. Once that time has elapsed, the following signs and symptoms typically appear:
- Light-colored stools
- Abdominal pain or discomfort (particularly on the right side near the liver)
- Dark urine
- Muscle pain or soreness
- Loss of appetite
- Low-grade fever
It’s important to keep in mind that some people with hepatitis A may not develop any signs or symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they usually last less than two months, but may persist for as long as six months.
Causes & Diagnosis
Hepatitis A is caused by an infection of the hepatitis A virus. This virus is usually spread through the ingestion of fecal matter. Drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food are the most common methods of contracting the virus (fruits, vegetables and shellfish are particularly common food sources of the virus). However, you can also get hepatitis A from being in close contact with a person who is infected or by having sex with someone who has the virus. Remember that, because symptoms show up later on or not at all, the person you’re in contact with may not realize that they have hepatitis A at the time.
Your risk for contracting hepatitis A increases in any of the following situations:
- Living with someone who has the virus
- Living in a nursing home or rehabilitation center
- Traveling or working in developing countries (food and water are often more likely to be contaminated here)
- Being HIV positive
- Being a man who has sexual contact with other men
- Using intravenous illegal drugs
- Working in a health care, food or sewage industry
- Receiving clotting-factor concentrates for a medical condition (such as hemophilia)
Doctors use blood tests to detect the presence of hepatitis A in the body. In addition, any apparent signs and symptoms will be discussed.
The hepatitis A vaccine prevents infection with the virus. This vaccine is given in two doses – an initial shot followed by a booster shot six months later. Currently, the CDC recommends that all children receive this vaccine between their first and second birthdays. It’s also recommended that anyone at a higher risk of contracting the virus (due to travel, work, sexual activity, etc.) get the hepatitis A vaccine. Those who have allergies to vaccine components or who are pregnant or sick should not receive the vaccine.
Other methods can be used to further prevent contracting the hepatitis A virus. It’s important to practice good hygiene, including washing hands thoroughly after using the toilet and not sharing toothbrushes or eating utensils. Those who are traveling to areas where hepatitis A is more common should try to drink bottled water and not use ice in beverages. When bottled water isn’t available, tap water should be boiled before drinking. For food, make sure fruits and vegetables are washed and peeled and check to make sure all meats and fish are cooked thoroughly before eating.
Treatment & Management
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A. Instead, the body naturally clears the virus from the body on its own. Typically, the liver heals completely within a month or two.
Some treatments to relieve and cope with the symptoms of hepatitis A are available, such as:
- Lifestyle changes: The following lifestyle changes are recommended for people with hepatitis A:
- Expect to have less energy and take time to rest.
- Avoid alcohol to reduce stress on your liver.
- Nausea may be relieved by eating small snacks instead of big meals.
- Avoid sexual activity to protect your partner from infection.
- Practice excellent personal hygiene habits.
- Don’t prepare food for others.
- Medications: Review your medications with your doctor to ensure that none of the current drugs you are taking will place added stress on your liver.
Keep in mind that you can prevent being infected with hepatitis A if you get treatment soon after your exposure. If you think you may have hepatitis A (even if you’re not showing symptoms yet), see a doctor or talk to someone at your local health department.