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Hepatitis A: What It Is, Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

When you hear about hepatitis A, you may think of tainted food and water, but this liver infection can also be spread from person to person.

The American Liver Foundation estimates that 115,900 new cases of hepatitis A, B, and C occur annually in the United States.

Hepatitis A triggers liver inflammation. Here, experts explore its causes, symptoms, treatment options, the importance of vaccination and how it spreads.

What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is part of a trio of hepatitis viruses, each causing liver inflammation and affecting how your liver works. The American Liver Association points out that hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are all caused by different viruses, each with its own impact on the liver.

  • Hepatitis A: It's highly contagious and typically a short-term infection. You can catch it from person to person or through contaminated food and drink. But here's the good news: It's preventable with a vaccine.
  • Hepatitis B: This can start as a short-term illness; it becomes a lifelong condition for some. It spreads through blood, semen or other body fluids, but vaccines can shield you from it.
  • Hepatitis C: This type mainly spreads through contact with infected blood, often linked to sharing needles. Sadly, it's become more widespread during the opioid crisis. For over half of those infected, it becomes a long-term, chronic condition that can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

How do you get hepatitis A?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that hepatitis A transmission occurs through contact with the hepatitis A virus, which lurks in the stool and blood of infected individuals. Here's how it happens:

  • Person-to-person contact: Close contact with an infected person can lead to transmission, especially if personal hygiene isn't up to par. This includes everyday actions like shaking hands or caring for someone who is ill.
  • Contaminated food or drink: Another avenue is consuming food or beverages tainted by the virus. This can occur if proper hygiene isn't maintained during food preparation or if contaminated water is used. So, watching what you eat and drink is crucial in preventing hepatitis A.

Hepatitis A causes

The hepatitis A virus can be transmitted when even a tiny bit of infected stool finds its way into someone else's mouth (known as fecal-oral transmission). So, how does it happen? Here are the hepatitis A causes as explained by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Contaminated food or drink: Consuming something tainted with infected stool is a common route. This could be food handled by someone with the virus who didn't wash their hands properly after using the toilet or drinking contaminated water.
  • Polluted water: Drinking water that's been contaminated by the virus is a risk, as is eating food washed in such water.
  • Raw shellfish and sewage: Even indulging in raw shellfish from water polluted with sewage can expose you to the virus.
  • Close contact: Simply being close to someone with the virus, even if they don't show symptoms, can lead to transmission.
  • Sexual contact: Intimate contact with an infected person can also spread the virus. Fortunately, casual contact or airborne transmission through sneezing or coughing isn't how hepatitis A spreads.

Hepatitis A symptoms

In a recent video, Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist Dr. Stacey Rizza said that symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach aches
  • Diarrhea
  • Jaundice

“In people who live in homeless facilities, hygiene is not always good. So, it’s easy to transmit the infection amongst a group that may be in close contact,” she added.

Hepatitis A treatment

Is hepatitis A treatable? The Mayo Clinic says hepatitis A doesn't have any treatments — your body does the heavy lifting by clearing the virus naturally. Most cases resolve within six months without leaving lasting harm to the liver.

The focus of hepatitis A treatment is on easing discomfort and symptom control. Here's what you might need to do:

  • Rest: Hepatitis A often leaves you feeling fatigued and unwell, so ample rest is crucial.
  • Stay nourished and hydrated: Eating well can be challenging due to nausea, so choose frequent snacks instead of big meals. High-calorie foods can help compensate. Drinking fruit juice or milk instead of water can provide extra calories. And remember to stay hydrated, especially if vomiting or diarrhea strikes.
  • Be cautious with alcohol and medications: Your liver may struggle to process alcohol and certain medications during a hepatitis A infection. It's essential to steer clear of alcohol, as it can harm your liver. Always consult your health care provider about your medications, even over-the-counter ones, to ensure they won't interfere with your recovery.

Is there a hepatitis A vaccine?

In the United States, the hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for children aged 12 months to 18 years, according to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. This vaccine is typically administered in two doses, with the second given at least six months after the first. Children should receive the first dose after the age of 1, and those up to 18 who haven't been vaccinated should also get it.

Considering hepatitis A outbreaks occur annually in the United States, adults seeking protection can opt for vaccination. It's also advisable for those at an elevated risk of infection, including:

  • Travelers to countries with moderate or high hepatitis A rates
  • Individuals in close contact with children adopted from countries with similar rates
  • People experiencing homelessness
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Users of injection or non-injection drugs
  • Those with chronic liver disease or HIV infection
  • People with an increased exposure risk due to their occupation
  • Pregnant women with potential risk factors
  • Unvaccinated individuals aged 1 or older during outbreaks
  • Individuals exposed to hepatitis A within the last two weeks, a practice known as post-exposure prophylaxis

Living with hepatitis A

Managing hepatitis A primarily involves symptom relief. Doctors typically advise rest, a balanced diet and staying well-hydrated. In severe cases, hospital care may be necessary. Recovery after infection can be slow, stretching over several weeks or even months. It's crucial to steer clear of unnecessary medications that could harm your liver, like acetaminophen or paracetamol.

The good news is that once you recover from hepatitis A, you develop antibodies that protect you from the virus for life, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Resources

American Liver Foundation: Hepatitis

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Person-to-Person Outbreaks of Hepatitis A Across the United States

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Hepatitis A Questions and Answers for the Public

Mayo Clinic: Hepatitis A

Mayo Clinic Minute: Hepatitis A in the U.S.

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: A Look at Each Vaccine: Hepatitis A Vaccine

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