Hepatitis A (formerly known as infectious hepatitis) is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. The disease is fairly common. The hepatitis A virus enters through the mouth, multiplies in the body, and is passed in the feces (bowel movement). The virus can then be carried on an infected person’s hands and can be spread by direct contact, or by eating food or a drink that has been handled by the person. In some cases, it can be spread by sexual contact or by drinking water or food (such as raw shellfish or vegetables) contaminated by sewage.
The symptoms of hepatitis A may include tiredness, poor appetite, fever and nausea. Urine may become darker in color, and then a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes known as jaundice may appear. A person infected with the hepatitis A virus can be contagious about two weeks before symptoms appear. The disease is rarely fatal and most people recover in a few weeks without any problems. Infants and young children tend to have very mild symptoms and are less likely to develop the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes than older children and adults. Not everyone who is infected will have all of the symptoms. The symptoms may appear two to six weeks after exposure, but usually within four weeks.
Most people are probably no longer contagious after the first week of yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. A person who has recovered from hepatitis A 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 a person once the symptoms appear. Generally, bed rest is all that is needed for persons to recover from hepatitis A.
The single most effective way to prevent spread is careful hand washing after using the toilet, changing diapers, or before eating or preparing food. Avoid eating raw shellfish taken from potentially contaminated waters. Also, infected people should not handle foods during the contagious period. The hepatitis A vaccine is effective at preventing infection with hepatitis A virus. Individuals may wish to discuss the potential benefits of receiving the hepatitis A vaccine with their doctor. Household members or others in close contact with an infected person should call a doctor or the health department to determine if they should be treated to decrease their chances of becoming ill. Persons traveling overseas should consider getting vaccinate against hepatitis A, especially if they will be exposed to contaminated water, ice, or shellfish harvested in contaminated water; or from fruits, vegetables, or other foods that are eaten uncooked and that were contaminated during harvesting or subsequent handling. Cleaning surfaces with household bleach in water are effective in killing the hepatitis A virus.