Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. It can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months. In rare cases, hepatitis A can cause liver failure and death.
Hepatitis A usually spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person. Hepatitis A can also spread from close personal contact with an infected person such as through sex or caring for someone who is ill.
Contamination of food by hepatitis A can happen at any point: during growing, harvesting, processing, handling and even after cooking. In the United States, chlorination kills hepatitis A virus that enters the water supply.
The hepatitis A virus is able to survive outside the body for months. High temperatures, such as boiling or cooking food or liquids for at least 1 minute at 185 F (85 C), kill the virus, although freezing temperatures do not.
Older children and adults typically have symptoms. Most children younger than age 6 do not have symptoms when they have hepatitis A.
If symptoms develop, they can appear abruptly and can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, diarrhea, clay-colored stools, joint pain and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).
If symptoms occur, they usually start appearing four weeks after exposure. Symptoms usually develop over a period of several days. Symptoms usually last less than two months, although some people can have them for as long as six months.
A person can spread hepatitis A without having symptoms. In addition, a person can transmit the virus to others up to two weeks before symptoms appear.
A doctor can determine if you have hepatitis A by discussing your symptoms and taking a blood sample.
Unvaccinated people who have been exposed recently (within two weeks) to the virus should get the hepatitis A vaccine or a shot of immune globulin to prevent severe illness.
To treat the symptoms of hepatitis A, doctors usually recommend rest, adequate nutrition and fluids. Some people will need care in a hospital. It can take a few months before people with hepatitis A begin to feel better.
The best way to prevent hepatitis A is through vaccination. Practicing good hand hygiene — including thoroughly washing hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers and before preparing or eating food — plays an important role in preventing the spread of hepatitis A.
The hepatitis A vaccine is safe and effective and given as two shots, six months apart. Both shots are needed for long-term protection. It also comes in a combination form, containing the hepatitis A and B vaccine, that can be given to anyone 18 and older. This combination vaccine is given as three shots, over six months. All three shots are needed for long-term protection.
No serious side effects have been reported from the hepatitis A vaccine. As with any medicine, there is always a small risk that a serious problem could occur after someone gets the vaccine. However, the potential risks associated with hepatitis A are much greater than the potential risks associated with the vaccine.
People who have ever had a serious allergic reaction to the hepatitis A vaccine or who are known to be allergic to any part of the vaccine should not receive it. Tell your doctor if you have any severe allergies. Also, the vaccine is not licensed for use for infants.
Anyone who is susceptible (unvaccinated or never had hepatitis A) and planning to travel to countries where hepatitis A is common should be vaccinated with the hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin. Even travelers to urban areas, resorts and luxury hotels in countries where hepatitis A is common are at high risk. Travelers reporting that they maintained good hand hygiene and were careful about what they drank and ate have been infected when traveling to countries where hepatitis A is common.
You should get the first dose of hepatitis A vaccine as soon as you plan international travel where hepatitis A is common. Two weeks or more before departure is ideal, but getting the vaccine any time before travel will provide some protection.
Travelers who are allergic to a vaccine component or who are younger than 6 months should receive a single dose of immune globulin. Immune globulin provides effective protection against hepatitis A virus infection for up to two months, depending on the dosage given. If you are staying longer than two months, you can get another dose for continued protection.
To Your Health is provided by the staff of Boulder City Hospital. For more information, call 702-293-4111, ext. 576, or visit bouldercityhospital.org.