Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by exposure to toxins, immune diseases, or infection. Viruses cause most cases of hepatitis. Hepatitis A is inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus. This is an acute (short-term) type of hepatitis, which usually requires no treatment.
According to the World Health Organization, 1.4 million cases of hepatitis A occur each year (WHO, 2012). This highly contagious form of hepatitis can cause epidemics through contaminated food or water. Luckily, it is not serious, and usually causes no long-term effects.
Hepatitis is usually spread from person to person, making it highly contagious. However, certain factors can increase your risk of contracting it, including:
- living in (or spending an extended time in) an area where hepatitis A is common—this includes most developing countries
- injecting or using illegal drugs
- being HIV positive
- engaging in homosexual activity
The World Health Organization reports that for people living in developing countries where there are poor sanitation standards, the lifetime risk of hepatitis A infection is more than 90 percent (WHO, 2012).
Hepatitis A develops after contracting the hepatitis A virus (HAV). This virus is typically contracted after ingesting food or liquid contaminated with fecal matter containing the virus. Once ingested, the infection spreads through the bloodstream to the liver, where it causes inflammation and swelling.
Common methods of contracting hepatitis A are:
- eating food prepared by someone with the hepatitis A virus.
- eating food handled by preparers who do not use strict hand washing routines before touching food that you eat
- eating sewage-contaminated raw shellfish
- having unprotected sex with an infected person
- drinking polluted water
- coming in contact with infected fecal matter
Once you become infected, you are contagious even two weeks before the symptoms appear. The contagious period ends about one week after symptoms appear.
Children under the age of 6 typically show no symptoms when they contract the virus. Older children, teens, and adults usually develop mild symptoms, which include:
- flu-like symptoms (fever, fatigue, body aches)
- abdominal pain
- light-colored stool
- dark urine
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight loss
- jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
Symptoms usually appear 15 to 50 days after contracting the virus.
In extremely rare cases, hepatitis A can lead to acute liver failure. This complication is most common in older adults and people who already have chronic liver disease. If this occurs, you will be hospitalized. Even in cases of liver failure, a full recovery is likely. Very rarely, a liver transplant is required.
After discussing your symptoms with a doctor, he or she may order a blood test to check for the presence of a viral or bacterial infection. A blood test will immediately reveal the presence of the hepatitis A virus.
Some people have only a few symptoms and no signs of jaundice. Without the visible signs of jaundice, it is hard to diagnose any form of hepatitis through a physical examination. When symptoms are minimal, hepatitis A can remain undiagnosed. Complications due to a lack of diagnosis are rare.
There is no formal treatment for hepatitis A. Because it is a short-term viral infection that goes away on its own, any treatment focus is on minimizing the symptoms.
After a few weeks of rest, the symptoms of hepatitis A usually begin to improve on their own. To ease your symptoms you should:
- avoid alcohol
- maintain a healthy diet
- drink plenty of water
The number-one way to keep from getting hepatitis A is by getting the hepatitis A vaccine. This vaccine is given in a series of two injections, six to 12 months apart. If you are traveling to a developing country, where sanitation and hygienic practices are substandard, get your vaccination at least two weeks before traveling. It usually takes two weeks after the first injection for your body to start building immunity to hepatitis A. If you’re not traveling for at least a year, it’s best to get both injections before leaving.
Other tips to limit your chance of contracting hepatitis A are:
- thoroughly washing your hands with soap and warm water (before eating or drinking, and after using the restroom)
- drinking bottled water and not local water in developing countries, or in countries where there’s a high risk of contracting hepatitis A
- not eating peeled or raw fruit and vegetables from a developing country
With rest, your body will recover completely from hepatitis A in a matter of weeks or a few months. Usually there are no negative long-term consequences of having the virus.
After contracting hepatitis A, your body builds immunity to the disease. If you are exposed to the disease again, your immune system will prevent it from developing.