Viral hepatitis strikes thousands of Canadians resulting in short-term illness, chronic infections and even life-threatening consequences. One of the three most common forms of viral hepatitis 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.
National Help Line:
This support resource gives you and your loved one somewhere to turn for answers after diagnosis, helps you understand your disease, and provides you with the resources you need. You can call 1 (800) 563-5483 Monday to Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM EST.
The Peer Support Network:
This is a national network of people living with liver disease that have offered to share their experiences with others. It was developed by the Canadian Liver Foundation as a means to link Canadians like you who have a family member who has liver disease, who care for someone who suffers from liver disease, or who have been diagnosed with a liver disease, to talk about your concerns with a peer in a similar situation.
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