Hepatitis A (formerly known as infectious hepatitis) is a liver disease caused by a virus.
Anyone can get hepatitis A, but it occurs more frequently in children.
The hepatitis A virus enters through the mouth, multiplies in the body and is passed out in the feces. The virus can then be carried on an infected person's hands and can be spread by direct contact, or by consuming food or drink that has been handled by the individual. In some cases, it can be spread by consuming water contaminated with improperly treated sewage.
The symptoms of hepatitis A may include fatigue, poor appetite, fever, abdominal discomfort and vomiting. Urine may become darker, and then jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and eyes) may appear. The disease is rarely fatal and most people recover in a few weeks without any complications. Infants and young children tend to have very mild symptoms and are less likely to develop jaundice than are older children and adults. Not everyone who is infected will have all of the symptoms.
The symptoms may appear two to seven weeks after exposure, average 28-30 days.
The contagious period begins two weeks or so before the symptoms appear and extends to a few days after jaundice appears. Food handlers with hepatitis A should be excluded from food handling duties until symptoms cease a week after onset of jaundice or at least two blood tests show falling liver enzymes.
Once an individual recovers from hepatitis A, he or she is immune for life and does not continue to carry the virus.
There are no special medicines or antibiotics that can be used to treat the disease. Generally, bed rest and supportive care are needed.
The single most effective way to prevent spread is careful hand-washing after using the toilet. Also, infected people should not handle foods during the contagious period. A vaccine against hepatitis A is recommended for all children at one year of age followed by a second dose 6 months later. Household members or others in close contact with an infected person should call a doctor or the health department to determine if they need a shot of immune globulin which minimizes their chances of becoming ill or if they should be considered for vaccination.
Certain groups are at high risk and could benefit from hepatitis A immunization. These include military personnel, international travelers, certain populations that experience cyclic hepatitis A epidemics such as Native Americans, homosexuals, and users of illicit injectable drugs. Also, certain institutional workers, child care workers and laboratory workers who handle live hepatitis A virus are at higher risk of exposure to hepatitis A. The Hepatitis A vaccine can be used alone or with immune globulin for immediate and long-term protection in the event of outbreaks.