Hepatitis A: What You Need to Know

Hepatitis A

With hundreds lining up to receive vaccines following a Hepatitis A scare at a New York restaurant, many are wondering just what is it that they need to know about this virus?  Are they at risk?  What can be done to prevent contracting this illness?

Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis A virus.  It is different from other types of viral liver infections, such as Hepatitis B or C, which are caused by different organisms.

Symptoms of the illness normally appear about two to six weeks after a person is exposed to the virus.  These symptoms are usually mild, but can last as long as several months.  Some of the symptoms which people may experience include:  dark urine, tiredness, itching, pale stools, yellow skin, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and low-grade fever.  It can sometimes cause serious disease and acute liver failure in vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with pre-existing liver disease.

Unlike Hepatitis B and C,  Hepatitis A is not a chronic condition.  About 85 percent of people with the disease will be completely well within about three months.  And, most will be healed by they time they reach six months.  Patients need to know that only a rare few will die.

It is contracted by eating foods or drinks that have been contaminated with the organism by people who are already infected.  If a person handling food or drinks does not wash their hands properly after using the toilet, they can pass the virus on to other people.  Sometimes it can also be spread by eating raw shellfish from sewage-polluted waters.  It addition, it can be spread through contact with the blood or feces of an infected person.

People who are at especially high risk for contracting the Hepatitis A virus are those with poor sanitation facilities, those who do not have access to safe water, IV drug users, those living with an infected person, those engaging in sexual relations with an infected person and those who are traveling to areas where the disease is common without the protection of being vaccinated.

Even if people do not belong to a high risk group, it is possible that they will come into contact with the illness by eating at a restaurant with contaminated seafood or poor hygiene practices among its employees.

In the U.S., toddlers are routinely vaccinated for Hepatitis A, as well as children between the ages of 2 and 18 who live in states with high rates of the disease.  Anybody who has a high risk for the disease is also recommended to get the vaccine.

According to the New York City Health Department, anyone who was vaccinated prior to or within two weeks after exposure is protected from the virus.  If you suspect that you may have come into contact with the Hepatitis A virus, notify your personal physician or the local health department to learn exactly what you need to know about protecting yourself.

Written by:  Nancy Schimelpfening

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Mayo Clinic


World Health Organization