Hepatitis A

Pathogens 101 | Hepatitis A

What is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A (Also called Hep A) is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the Hepatitis A virus. Foodborne Hepatitis can range in severity from mild illness to a severe illness lasting several months. Learn more about Hepatitis A risks from food.

Hepatitis A  is usually spread when the virus is taken in by mouth from contact with food, drinks, or objects contaminated by the feces of an infected person.

  • Contaminated food or water: Hepatitis A can be spread by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with the virus. This is more likely to occur in countries where Hepatitis A is common and in areas where there are poor sanitary conditions or poor personal hygiene. The food and drinks most likely to be contaminated are fruits, vegetables, shellfish, ice, and water. In the United States, chlorination of water kills Hepatitis A virus that enters the water supply.
  • Person to person contact when an infected person does not wash his or her hands properly after going to the bathroom and touches other objects or food; when a parent or caregiver does not properly wash his or her hands after changing diapers or cleaning up the stool of an infected person; when someone engages in certain sexual activities, such as oral-anal contact with an infected person

Treatment for Hepatitis A
There are no special treatments for Hep A. Most people with Hep A will feel sick for a few months before they begin to feel better. A few people will need to be hospitalized. Antibiotic drugs will not help; this is because antibiotics fight against bacteria not viruses. During this time, doctors usually recommend rest, adequate nutrition, and fluids.

Does Hepatitis A cause symptoms?
Not always. Some people get Hepatitis A and have no symptoms of the disease. Adults are more likely to have symptoms than children. A doctor can determine if you have Hepatitis A by discussing your symptoms and taking a blood sample.

The symptoms of Hepatitis A
Some people do not have any symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they may include the following:
• Fever
• Fatigue
• Loss of appetite
• Nausea
• Vomiting
• Abdominal pain
• Dark urine
• Clay-colored bowel movements
• Joint pain
• Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin or eyes)

I ate at a restaurant that had an outbreak of Hepatitis A.
Talk to your health professional or a local health department official for guidance. Outbreaks usually result from one of two sources of contamination: an infected food handler or an infected food source. Your health department will investigate the cause of the outbreak.

Keep in mind that most people do not get sick when someone at a restaurant has Hepatitis A. However, if an infected food handler is infectious and has poor hygiene, the risk goes up for patrons of that restaurant. In such cases, health officials might try to identify patrons and provide Hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin if they can find them within 2 weeks of exposure.

On rare occasions, the source of the infection can be traced to contaminated food. Foods can become contaminated at any point along the process: growing, harvesting, processing, handling, and even after cooking. In these cases, health officials will try to determine the source of the contamination and the best ways to minimize health threats to the public.

I think I have been exposed to Hepatitis A.
If you have any questions about potential exposure to Hepatitis A, call your health professional or your local or state health department. If you were recently exposed to Hepatitis A virus and have not been vaccinated against Hepatitis A, you might benefit from an injection of either immune globulin or Hepatitis A vaccine. However, the vaccine or immune globulin must be given within the first 2 weeks after exposure to be effective. A health professional can decide what is best on the basis of your age and overall health.

How serious is Hepatitis A?
Almost all people who get Hepatitis A recover completely and do not have any lasting liver damage, although they may feel sick for months. Hepatitis A can sometimes cause liver failure and death, although this is rare and occurs more commonly in persons 50 years of age or older and persons with other liver diseases, such as Hepatitis B or C.

There are five identified types of viral hepatitis and each one is caused by a different virus. In the United States, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C are the most common types.


Photo courtesy of CDC/ E.H. Cook, Jr.

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