Hepatitis A

What is hepatitis A and who gets it?

Hepatitis A is an inflammation of the liver caused by a virus.  Anyone can get the hepatitis A virus, but it occurs more frequently in children and young adults.

What is the incubation period?

The time that a person is first exposed to the virus until the time the person begins to feel sick is generally between 15-50 days.  However, the infected person can spread the virus to others one to two weeks before symptoms appear, and up to one week after the onset of jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms often appear suddenly and may include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.  A few individuals may also have darkened urine, light-colored stool and jaundice.  The disease varies from a mild illness lasting 1-2 weeks to more severe cases taking 4-6 weeks to recover.  Infants and young children tend to have very mild symptoms.  Some people have no symptoms, but can still be contagious.  The disease is rarely fatal and most people recover in a few weeks without any complications.

How is it spread?

Hepatitis A is spread person-to-person from fecal contamination and oral ingestion.  The virus is passed through the intestines of the infected person and infects someone else if it enters through their mouth.  If someone who is infected with the virus does not wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water after having a bowel movement, the virus can be carried on the infected person's hands and potentially spread to others through food or other objects they touch.

Spread occurs easily in household and in day care centers, especially among children who wear diapers.  The virus is not airborne, so you will not get hepatitis A by being in the same room with someone who has it--however, it may survive on contaminated objects in the environment (for up to one month).

How is it treated?

There are no special medicines or antibiotics that can be used to treat or "cure" a person once symptoms appear.  Doctors may recommend bed rest or inactivity, eating a balanced diet low in fat, avoidance of alcoholic beverages and non-essential medications.  Medicine to help with vomiting or dehydration is sometimes needed.

How can you avoid getting hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A vaccine is the best protection. It is also very important to practice good sanitation and proper handwashing for yourself and your family.  Children need to have their hands washed by adults if they are too young to do it themselves.  Older children should be taught to wash their hands.  Adults need to set good examples.

Insist on cleanliness in the restaurants you patronize or wherever food is being prepared for consumption.  Also, day care centers (especially those enrolling children in diapers) should use the utmost care in hand washing practices and diapering procedures.

What if you are exposed to hepatitis A?

A shot of immune globulin, if given within two weeks of exposure, may help prevent illness in household members of infected persons and in persons who have eaten food prepared by someone with hepatitis A or who have been otherwise exposed.  There are usually no side effects from the shot other than some soreness in the area where the shot was given.  Immune globulin provides only temporary protection for about three months by boosting your immune system.

Information courtesy of the Memphis-Shelby County Health Department.

Healthcare providers, laboratories, and public health professionals can find more information about this disease and a variety of others at the Tennessee Department of Health Reportable Diseases and Events home pagehttp://apps.health.tn.gov/ReportableDiseases/ReportableDisease.aspx