Hepatitis ABCs

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By News Team on October 18, 2021

A recent outbreak of hepatitis A virus (HAV) attributed to a local restaurant chain has brought renewed attention to a highly contagious—and preventable—infection. 

What Is Hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a viral inflammation of the liver. The virus is spread through direct contact with another person who has the infection, or by consuming contaminated food or drink.

The most visible symptom of hepatitis A is jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin or the eyes resulting from a buildup of bilirubin in the liver. Other symptoms include: 

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain
  • Joint pain
  • Dark urine and clay-colored stools 

How Can You Prevent Infection?

The best way to prevent HAV is by getting vaccinated against it.

Vaccines are available from:

The two other most important prevention measures are frequent, thorough hand washing and proper cooking.

“The hepatitis A vaccine, frequent hand washing and proper food preparation are the best ways to prevent infection.” 

Who should be vaccinated against hepatitis A? The CDC recommends that the following people be vaccinated against hepatitis A:

Children:

People at increased risk for HAV infection:

  • International travelers
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People who use injection or noninjection drugs (all those who use illegal drugs)
  • People with occupational risk for exposure
  • People who anticipate close personal contact with an international adoptee
  • People experiencing homelessness

People at increased risk for severe disease from HAV infection:

  • People with chronic liver disease
  • People with human immunodeficiency virus infection

Other people recommended for vaccination:

  • Pregnant women at risk for infection or severe outcome from infection
  • Any person who requests vaccination

Vaccination during outbreaks

  • Unvaccinated people in outbreak settings who are at risk for HAV infection or at risk for severe disease from HAV 

What To Do If You Are Exposed

See your health care provider if you think you have been exposed to HAV.
 
If you are exposed to the virus and have not received the vaccine, you can still avoid serious illness if you receive the vaccine or a shot of immune globulin during the contagious period, which is about two weeks following exposure.
 
People with hepatitis A should not handle foods at home or at work during the contagious period. Anyone with symptoms—especially those who work in food service, health care or child care—should stay home, and children who have been exposed should avoid school and daycare. 
 
The symptoms of hepatitis A don’t develop for about two weeks, so it is important to be aware of situations where exposure may occur.

Symptoms can linger for several months. Rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications can help minimize your symptoms. The CDC recommends cleaning contaminated surfaces with a solution of a quarter-cup of bleach in one gallon of water.

Hepatitis A, B and C

The similar names of hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C can lead to confusion and unneeded worry. All three affect the liver, but they are caused by three distinct viruses and exposure to one virus does not put you at increased risk of the others. In brief:

  • Hepatitis A is an acute viral infection that is easily prevented through vaccination, and the potential spread can be minimized by proper hand washing and food preparation
  • A vaccine is also available to prevent hepatitis B, which can also begin as an acute infection but can become chronic for some people
  • There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, which can be chronic and result in long-term liver problems

Visit the CDC website for more information about distinctions between the three viruses, and how to protect yourself from each. And be sure to talk to your primary care provider about ways that you can minimize your risk to these and other viruses. 
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This article was reviewed by Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie, M.D., medical director of Carilion Clinic Infection Prevention and Control.

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