Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver disease. It is caused by the Hepatitis A virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 2015 there were 2,800 Hepatitis A cases in the United States.
Hepatitis A is spread primarily by food or water that is contaminated by the feces of an infected person. The method of transmission is especially concerning, as outbreaks of the virus are often linked to sick food service workers. Shellfish that is cultivated in contaminated water and is not cooked properly can also lead to Hepatitis A infections.
Some Fast Facts
- Hepatitis is a contagious liver infection. It can last for several weeks in some people to several months in others. The fatality rate is high in those at high risk – like the very old, very young, and those with compromised immune systems.
- Our liver plays an important role in digestion, synthesizing protein, and detoxifying. It also removes harmful toxins from the bloodstream.
- This is why Hepatitis A infections can be deadly. The liver cannot do its job with full effectiveness with an infection.
- A Hepatitis A epidemic in Shanghai in 1988 affected a total of 300,000 people.
- A safe and effective vaccine is available for Hepatitis A. The vaccine can be effective after exposure only if taken within 2 weeks after the exposure.
- Unlike its counterparts like Hepatitis A and B, Hepatitis A is not chronic. and most people heal completely without any long-term damage.
- Symptoms of the infection include: fatigue, fever, nausea, appetite loss, jaundice, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, etc.
- The incubation period (or the time from exposure to symptoms of infection) is anywhere from 2-6 weeks.
- Treatment generally involves rest and frequent hydration. Some of those who have become infected might also require medical care.
- Hepatitis A is a common issue in places with improper sanitation procedures or poor personal hygiene.
What is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious infection that can affect your liver’s ability to function. Its counterparts – Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C – are also liver infections, but are caused by a separate virus. All of them have different modes of transmission and can affect the liver quite differently. Hepatitis A is generally short lived and is not chronic. But Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C are short-term, acute infections that can cause long term liver damage in some people. There are vaccines available for Hepatitis A and B, but there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C at this time.
Someone who was formerly ill with Hepatitis A cannot become re-infected with the virus once they have been sick. This is because once someone has been infected with Hepatitis, the body develops antibodies that will be able to protect the body from the virus in the future. These antibodies help in protecting the body from disease by binding itself to the virus and destroying it.
A person can easily transmit the virus to someone else for up to 2 weeks before the symptoms actually start to occur in their body.
Are Hepatitis A, B, and C the same?
No. Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C are all liver infections, but they are caused by three different viruses. Although each can cause similar symptoms and have similar latency periods, they have different modes of transmission and can affect the liver differently.
Who is at more risk of the infection?
Although almost anyone can get infected by Hepatitis A, there are some people who are more at risk. These individuals include:
- People who are close to or have direct contact with someone who has Hepatitis A
- Travelers who recently travelled to a developing country or underdeveloped country with risk of Hepatitis A
- People who use illicit drugs (injection or non-injection)
- Individuals who suffer from clotting factor disorders, such as hemophilia
- Those who work with primates
- Individuals or caregivers who work with children that have been adoptees from a country where Hepatitis A is common
How does it affect our body?
Symptoms start appearing after 2-6 weeks of exposure, sometimes even up to 7 weeks after. Symptoms usually last for less than 2 months. But some people (10-15%) can suffer from the symptoms of Hepatitis A for as long as 6 months.
Symptoms of Hepatitis A include:
- Dark Urine
- Pale stools
- Joint pain and Muscle Pain
- High Temperature
- Loss of Appetite
- Itchy Skin
- Pain in upper part of the abdomen
About 10-15% of those infected may have a recurrence in the symptoms during the 6 months after the initial infection.
How is Hepatitis A Diagnosed and Treated?
The diagnosis of Hepatitis A involves detection of HAV specific IgM antibodies in the blood. It is detectable after 1-2 weeks of exposure (getting infected) by HAV and is present for up to 14 weeks. The presence of these antibodies indicates that the acute stage of illness is now over, and the person has become immune to other infection.
The medical and general treatment for Hepatitis A involves:
- eating small, light meals
- avoiding alcohol to reduce strain on liver
- practicing good hygiene
Anyone who suspects that they may have contracted Hepatitis A should see their doctor if they have any of the symptoms mentioned above of Hepatitis. A visit to the doctor may also be a good idea if someone has travelled to a country where Hepatitis A is common or has been to a restaurant and eaten a meal that linked to a Hepatitis A outbreak.
If the exposure period is still within the first 2 weeks, a post-exposure vaccine can be given as another form of treatment.
Is there a Vaccination for Hepatitis A?
Yes! Vaccination is the most effective way of prevention against the Hepatitis A virus (HAV).
Vaccination is recommended for:
- Travelers who generally visit to developing countries
- Food service workers
- Those who have a high risk of Hepatitis A exposure
- Those who are exposed to injectable or non-injectable drugs
- Anyone with a liver disease
- Those with blood clotting problems
- Anyone in the high-risk group
Vaccination can also help in preventing the infection if it is taken within 2 weeks of exposure to the virus.
In fact, Hepatitis A rates have declined by more than 95% since the Hepatitis A vaccine first became available in 1995.
How Does Someone Become Infected with Hepatitis A?
- Eating food that is cooked or handled by someone who has the infection
- Drinking water contaminated with feces infected by HAV
- Eating raw or undercooked shellfish
- By coming into close contact with someone who has the infection
Are There Long-Term Complications?
For most people, the symptoms of Hepatitis A will completely go away within months of infection. There usually will be no long-term effects after an infected person has recovered. After the infection has passed, the infected person develops a lifelong immunity against the virus.
Generally, about 1 in 7 people will have the symptoms of the infection on and off for 6 months before their bodies eventually get over the illness.
Life-threatening complications from Hepatitis A are rare. But it can cause liver failure. About 1 in 250 people who become infected with Hepatitis A will develop liver failure. People who are at risk of this complication are elderly people and those who might suffer from preexisting liver problems.