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What You Need to Know About Hepatitis A

Nicole Cutler L.Ac. May 13, 2009

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Learn how Hepatitis A can be transmitted and some of the virus’ most common symptoms. Also find out some helpful tips on self-administered symptom relief, ways to prevent transmitting it to others and how to protect yourself from infection.

One of the three most common hepatitis viruses in the United States, Hepatitis A is a self-limiting viral infection of the liver. Unlike the other two common types of hepatitis, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, Hepatitis A typically does not cause chronic disease. One of the liver’s amazing capabilities is its ability to heal and recover from injury. While Hepatitis A does cause liver inflammation, most people’s livers can fully recover without any long-term damage. However, people already afflicted with chronic liver disease are more susceptible to serious illness as a result of Hepatitis A infection.

Transmission

The Hepatitis A virus (HAV) is transmitted primarily through the fecal-oral route. Hepatitis A viral particles are found in the feces of people infected with Hepatitis A. It is transmitted when a person puts something in his or her mouth that has been contaminated with the feces of an affected person. Because of the way it is spread, HAV frequently occurs in outbreaks. Some situations resulting in outbreaks include:

  • Inadequate hand washing or poor sanitary conditions of an infected person can contaminate food or drinking water. Once food or water is tainted with the virus, it can quickly spread to anyone ingesting it.
  • The virus can be spread by eating raw or undercooked shellfish collected from bodies of water contaminated by sewage.
  • If attention to hygiene becomes lax at a location where direct fecal-oral transmission is likely to occur, such as daycare centers, prisons and mental institutions, there is a greater chance of an outbreak.

Symptoms

Many people with HAV infection have no symptoms at all, or symptoms are so mild that they go unnoticed. While older people are more likely to have symptoms than children, even an asymptomatic person can spread the virus. Symptoms of Hepatitis A usually develop between two to six weeks after contracting the virus. Although symptoms are usually mild and go away on their own, the most common ones include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea, especially in children
  • Low-grade fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rash
  • Fatigue
  • Jaundice – yellow discoloration of the skin and the whites of the eyes
  • Dark urine
  • Liver pain – pain on the right side of the abdomen, just under the rib cage

If the vomiting is severe, dehydration may occur. Dehydration is a serious condition and must receive immediate medical care. If a healthcare provider cannot be reached, and one of the following applies, seek emergency health services:

  • Unstoppable vomiting and inability to keep down any liquids
  • Severe pain or high fever
  • Confusion, delirium or difficulty awakening

Symptom Relief

There are no specific medicines to cure infection with Hepatitis A. Most people only require temporary symptom relief. The following measures can be taken for self-administered symptom relief:

  • Rest – curtail normal activities and spend time resting at home.
  • Hydrate – drink plenty of clear fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Avoidance – do not take medicines or substances that can cause harm to the liver. These include, but are not limited to, acetaminophen (Tylenol), preparations that contain acetaminophen and alcoholic beverages.
  • Hygiene – be extra careful about personal hygiene to avoid fecal-oral transmission to other members of the household.

Prevention

If you have Hepatitis A, strict personal hygiene and hand washing help prevent its transmission to others.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly every time you use the bathroom, before touching or preparing food and before touching others. Wash carefully with soap and warm water and dry thoroughly.
  • Contaminated surfaces should be cleaned with household bleach, and food or water should be heated to 185°F or 85°C to kill the virus.
  • Milk thistle may aid the liver in a quicker recovery. Studies demonstrate that extract of milk thistle helps the liver neutralize toxins and produce new, healthy liver cells. While this supplement will not cure or prevent HAV, it can support your liver during an attack.
  • Avoid sexual activity to protect your partner from infection. Many kinds of sexual activities can transmit HAV – and condoms don’t offer adequate protection. If you are not infected with HAV, you can help protect yourself from becoming infected:
  • Wash your hands carefully with soap and warm water several times a day, including every time you use the bathroom, every time you change a diaper and before preparing food.
  • Do not eat raw or undercooked seafood or shellfish such as oysters from areas of questionable sanitation (just about everywhere).
  • Travelers to developing countries should not drink untreated water or beverages with ice in them. Fruits and vegetables should not be eaten unless cooked or peeled.
  • Get vaccinated for Hepatitis A. The vaccines, Havrix and VAQTA, contain no live virus and are very safe. People with existing chronic liver disease are advised to consider the HAV vaccine because they are likely to become seriously ill if exposed.
  • If you have never had Hepatitis A and are exposed to the virus, call your health care provider immediately. Although it only offers short-term protection, an injection of immune globulin within two weeks of HAV exposure may prevent infection.

Once someone has Hepatitis A, lifelong immunity is established preventing re-infection with the disease.

While HAV is a completely different pathogen than Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C, it remains a highly contagious virus targeting the liver. A person currently living with liver disease must know the basics of Hepatitis A, including how this illness is transmitted, its symptoms and how to protect themselves and others from it. For some people, getting vaccinated is the best choice, while others may benefit from supplementing with milk thistle and refraining from alcohol use. Since each person’s situation is unique, being educated on the details of this common type of hepatitis can help you stay as healthy as humanly possible.

References:

www.cfsan.fda.gov, Hepatitis A Virus, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 2007.

www.emedicinehealth.com, Hepatitis A, WebMD, 2007.

www.mayoclinic.com, Hepatitis A Prevention, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2007.

www.medicinenet.com, Preventing Hepatitis A, Diana Kohnle, ScoutNews, LLC, 2007.

www.webmd.com, Hepatitis A Virus Test, WebMD, Inc., 2007.

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