What Is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. Some people have a mild illness that lasts a few weeks. Others have more severe problems that can last months. You usually get it when you eat or drink something that’s been exposed to poop from someone who has the virus.
Unlike other types, the hepatitis A virus is rarely dangerous. Almost everyone who gets it makes a full recovery. But since it can take a while to clear up, it’s a good idea to know how to take care of yourself in the meantime.
What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis A?
If you have this infection, you have inflammation in your liver that’s caused by a virus. You don’t always get symptoms, but when you do, you might have:
- Jaundice (yellow eyes and skin, dark urine)
- Pain in your belly
- Loss of appetite
Children often have the disease with few symptoms.
You can spread the hepatitis A virus about 2 weeks before your symptoms appear and during the first week they show up, or even if you don’t have any.
What Causes Hepatitis A?
You can catch the disease if you drink water or food that’s been contaminated with the stool of someone with the virus.
Hepatitis transmission can also happen if you:
- Eat fruits, vegetables, or other foods that were contaminated during handling
- Eat raw shellfish harvested from water that’s got the virus in it
- Swallow contaminated ice
What Are the Risk Factors for Hepatitis A?
You could be at risk for the disease if you:
- Live with or have sex with someone who’s infected
- Travel to countries where hepatitis A is common
People who are also at risk are:
- Men who have sex with men
- People who inject illegal drugs
- Kids in child care and their teachers
How Do Doctors Diagnose Hepatitis A?
Your doctor will suspect hepatitis if you have the symptoms above and you have high levels of liver enzymes when he tests your blood. He’ll confirm the diagnosis with these blood tests:
- IgM (immunoglobulin M) antibodies. Your body makes these when you’re first exposed to hepatitis A. They stay in your bloodstream for about 3 to 6 months.
- IgG ( immunoglobulin G) antibodies. These show up after the virus has been in your body for a while. You may have them all your life. They protect you against hepatitis A for the rest of your life. If you test positive for them but not for IgM antibodies, it means you had a hepatitis A infection in the past or you’ve been vaccinated against it.
Does Hepatitis A Have Any Long-Term Effects?
Usually the virus doesn’t cause any long-term problems or complications. But according to the CDC, 10% to 15% of people with hepatitis A will have symptoms that last a long time or come back over a 6- to 9-month period. In rare situations, some people may have liver failure or need a transplant.
What’s the Treatment?
There is no specific medication that can get rid of hepatitis A. Your doctor will treat your symptoms — you may hear this called supportive care — until the disease goes away. He’ll also do tests that check how well your liver is working to be sure your body is healing.
During that time, you can take these steps to make yourself more comfortable:
- Get some rest. You’ll probably feel tired, sick, and have less energy than before you were infected.
- Try to keep food down. The nausea that comes with hepatitis A can make it tough to eat. It may be easier to snack during the day than to eat full meals. To make sure you get enough, go for more high-calorie foods and drink fruit juice or milk instead of water. Fluids will also help keep you hydrated if you’re throwing up.
- Avoid alcohol. It’s hard for your liver to process medications and alcohol. Plus, drinking can lead to added liver damage. Tell your doctor about any medications you take, including over-the-counter drugs.
Is There a Hepatitis A Vaccine?
Yes. It’s about 95% effective among healthy adults and can work for more than 20 years. It’s around 85% effective among children and can last them 15 to 20 years.
Vaccination is recommended for:
- Travelers to areas of the world with higher hepatitis A infection
- Infants aged 6 to 11 months who are traveling internationally
- Men who have sex with other men
- Those with a blood clotting problem
- People who inject illegal drugs
- Anyone with long-term liver disease
The vaccine is given in 3 separate doses.
Can Hepatitis A Be Prevented?
Getting vaccinated is your best defense. If you come in contact with someone with hepatitis A, you can get an immune globulin shot within 2 weeks.
Good hygiene is also important. Always wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, before and after handling food, and after changing a diaper.
When you travel to a place with poor sanitation, don’t drink tap water or eat raw food.
How Do You Avoid Spreading Hepatitis A?
Take these steps to prevent giving hepatitis A to others:
- Avoid all sexual activity.
- Wash your hands after you use the bathroom or change diapers.
- Don’t prepare food for others if you have an active infection.