Hepatitis A: Symptoms, Causes and Prevention

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the Hepatitis A virus (HAV). This virus is one of several types of hepatitis viruses that cause inflammation and affect your liver’s ability to function.

HAV is transmitted through ingestion of contaminated food and water or through direct contact with an infectious person. Hepatitis A infection does not result in chronic liver and mild cases of hepatitis A don’t require treatment. Most people who are infected recover fully from the condition with no permanent liver damage.

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Following good hygiene practices, including washing hands frequently, is one of the most effective ways to protect against hepatitis A. Those most at risk should get vaccinated to prevent the condition.

Symptoms

Hepatitis A signs and symptoms, which typically don’t arise until you’ve lived with the virus for a few weeks, may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort, especially in the area of your liver on your right side beneath your lower ribs
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Mild fever – usually no higher than 39.5ºC (103.1ºF)
  • Very dark urine and pale stools
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and/or yellow eyes

If you develop hepatitis A, you may have a mild illness for a few weeks or a severe illness for several months. Not everyone who is infected will have all of these signs and symptoms.

When to see a doctor

Contact with your doctor if you experience signs or symptoms of hepatitis A.

If you’ve been recently exposed to the condition, you might benefit from an injection of either immune globulin or Hepatitis A vaccine within the first two weeks of exposure. Ask your doctor or your local health department about getting vaccinated against the condition if:

  • You’ve traveled to countries where this condition is common or to areas with poor sanitation.
  • A restaurant where you recently ate reports a hepatitis A outbreak
  • Live with someone who is diagnosed with the condition
  • You recently had oral-anal sexual contact with someone who has the condition

Causes

Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus, which usually is spread through the “faecal-oral” route. This is when you ingest something that has been contaminated by the stools of someone with hepatitis A. The hepatitis A virus infects liver cells and causes inflammation. The inflammation can impair liver function and result in other symptoms of the condition.

Hepatitis A virus can be spread through several ways, such as:

  • Eating food handled by someone with the virus who doesn’t wash his or her hands properly after using the restroom
  • Drinking contaminated water
  • Eating raw shellfish from water polluted with sewage
  • Sharing a needle with an infected person to inject drugs
  • Having close contact with someone who’s infected — even if that person exhibit no signs or symptoms
  • Being a sexual partner of someone with acute infection.

Risk factors

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It is usually recommended you receive the hepatitis A vaccine if you:

  • Attend child care or work in a child care center
  • Travel to or live in high-risk areas
  • Are a man who has sexual contact with other men
  • Are HIV positive
  • Have a clotting-factor disorder, such as hemophilia
  • Use illegal drugs, whether injected or not
  • Live with someone who has the condition
  • Work with primates (monkeys, apes, baboons, chimps, gorillas), as these can also be infected with the condition
  • Have oral-anal contact with someone who has the condition

Prevention

The hepatitis A vaccine can prevent infection with the virus. The  vaccine is typically given in two doses, first vaccination followed by a booster shot six months later.

With proven means of prevention, it is crucial to pursue prevention actively. Improved sanitation, food safety and immunization are among the best ways to prevent the virus.

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The spread of this condition can be reduced by:

  • Adequate supplies of safe drinking water
  • Proper disposal of sewage within communities
  • Personal hygiene practices such as washing your hands after going to the toilet, changing a diaper and before preparing food.
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