Nearly 44,000 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with hepatitis A virus (HAV) since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began tracking outbreaks in 2016. In the 37 states (including Virginia) that have reported outbreaks, over 60% of those diagnosed have been hospitalized.
What Is HAV?
HAV is a serious liver disease that is spread when feces-contaminated objects, food or water enter the mouth. The virus is spread through direct contact with another person who has the infection, or by consuming contaminated food or drink.
Outbreak tracked by the CDC have been due primarily to contaminated imported foods, drug use, issues related to homelessness and sexual transmission of the disease.
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. Most adults with HAV also experience:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Dark urine and clay-colored stools (resulting from jaundice)
Children less than 6 years of age do not usually have symptoms.
A person infected with HAV can transmit the disease to other people even without showing symptoms of the disease. Symptoms don’t develop for about two weeks, so it is important to be aware of situations where exposure may occur.
The best way to prevent HAV is by getting vaccinated against it. The HAV vaccine provides 95% protection in healthy adults. The two other most important prevention measures are frequent, thorough hand washing and proper cooking.
Vaccines are recommended for:
- Infants 6 through 11 months old (one dose if travelling outside of the U.S.)
- Children (two doses)
- First dose: 12 through 23 months of age
- Second dose: at least 6 months after the first dose
- Older children and adolescents 2 through 18 years of age who were not vaccinated previously
- Certain adults:
- International travelers
- Men who have sexual contact with other men
- People who use injection or non-injection drugs
- People who have occupational risk for infection
- People who anticipate close contact with an international adoptee
- People experiencing homelessness
- People with HIV
- People with chronic liver disease
Vaccines are available from:
- Pharmacies, including Carilion Clinic Pharmacy
- An urgent care facility such as VelocityCare
- Your primary care provider
- Your local health department
You can also visit the CDC website to find a facility near you offering the vaccine. People who work in health care can also check with their employer to see if they offer vaccines to employees.
What To Do If You Are Exposed
See your health care provider as soon as possible if you think you have been exposed to HAV.
“Exposure to hepatitis A is very serious health risk,” said John Epling, M.D., a Carilion Clinic Family Medicine provider and the medical director of Carilion’s Employee Health and Wellness programs. “If you think you have been exposed to the virus, get a vaccine as soon as possible and within 2 weeks after exposure. The HAV vaccine may be given at the same time as other vaccines.”
People with HAV 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.
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.