Hepatitis A

What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a potentially serious form of liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus which attacks the liver. 

How do I get hepatitis A? 

Hepatitis A is spread through close contact with an infected person, or by eating hepatitis A contaminated food or drinking water. Because the virus is found in the stool (feces) of infected people, eating food prepared by an infected person, who does not wash his/her hands properly after using the washroom, is one way of getting the virus.

Eating raw or undercooked seafood and shellfish from water polluted with sewage, or eating salad greens that are rinsed in contaminated water are other ways of becoming infected. Sharing drug-use equipment, or having sexual contact with an infected person can also give you hepatitis A.

While often considered to be a ‘traveller’s disease’, hepatitis A can be contracted in Canada. Hepatitis A outbreaks or scares in Canada are most often associated with infected food handlers in restaurants and grocery stores or with contaminated produce.

Who is most at risk of getting hepatitis A?

You have an increased risk of hepatitis A if you:

•travel to regions where hepatitis A is common (e.g. The Caribbean, South America),
•live with someone who is newly infected with hepatitis A,
•use injection drugs and share contaminated drug preparation/injection materials,
•are an inmate in jail, or
•have sex involving oral/anal contact.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

Not all people infected with hepatitis A virus will have symptoms. Pre-school children often have no symptoms, and, in general, children will have milder symptoms than adults. Symptoms may occur 15 to 50 days from the time you first come in contact with the hepatitis A virus.

When you first become infected with the hepatitis A virus it is called acute infection. Typical symptoms of an acute hepatitis A infection include: fatigue, nausea and vomiting, abdominal discomfort, jaundice (yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin), dark urine, low grade fever and loss of appetite.

The older you are when you get hepatitis A, the more likely that you will experience more severe symptoms. Some people feel sick for one to two weeks, while in others the symptoms may last several months. Hepatitis A rarely causes death. However, persons with pre-existing chronic liver disease, including chronic hepatitis B and C, are at increased risk of serious complications from this infection.

How can I avoid getting hepatitis A?

There is a safe and effective vaccine that can protect you from getting hepatitis A. The vaccine is usually given in two doses six months apart. The vaccine will give you protection for up to 20 years. A combined vaccine for hepatitis A and hepatitis B is also available. Since up to 40% of the reported cases of hepatitis A occur in travellers, it is advisable to protect yourself with a hepatitis A vaccination six weeks before you leave.

Consider these additional safety precautions:

•Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly especially after using the washroom, before preparing food and before eating.
•Avoid raw or undercooked food.
•If you are travelling to countries with high rates of hepatitis A:

    ◦Drink bottled or boiled water and use it for brushing your teeth.
    ◦Drink bottled beverages without ice.
    ◦Avoid uncooked food including salads.
    ◦Avoid food from street vendors.
    ◦Peel and wash fresh fruits and vegetables yourself.

Can hepatitis A be treated?

There is no drug treatment for hepatitis A. The disease will eventually run its course and an infected person will recover completely although recovery time varies for each person. Recovery from this virus infection means that you are protected for life from getting it again.

The following are some ways of dealing with the symptoms:

•You will feel tired and may have very little energy. You may need to take time off from daily activities, work or school to recover.
•Nausea and vomiting may cause you to lose your appetite. Try to eat small snacks and soft foods such as soup or toast.
•You may look “yellow”. Once you become yellow, you are no longer infectious. There is no need to isolate yourself. Let people around you know it is OK to be near you.
•Try not to drink alcohol. Your liver may not be able to process alcohol and alcohol may make your symptoms worse.
•Talk to your doctor before taking over-the-counter medications or complementary medicine. None of the alternative therapies have proved helpful in treating hepatitis A.

The information provided above – as well as additional facts about hepatitis A – is available in the Canadian Liver Foundation’s hepatitis A pamphlet and in our ‘LIVERight: Healthy Living with Viral Hepatitis’ booklet . These and other CLF publications are available for download in the Publications Library or by calling 1-800-563-5483 or emailing clf@liver.ca

The CLF offers Living with Liver Disease programs for people living with hepatitis and others forms of liver disease. You can also help others with hepatitis by volunteering or donating in support of the CLF's research and education programs.

To read about research projects on Viral hepatitis click here 
To make a donation to support liver health research, click here

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