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Hepatitis A: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

April 30, 2019

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. The liver is an organ that filters the blood and helps the body fight infections, so an inflammation can affect the liver’s ability to perform. Although several strains of hepatitis exist (hepatitis A, B, C, D and E), the most common in the United States are hepatitis A, B and C.

  • Hepatitis A is a virus, with about 4,000 new cases in the U.S. each year. It is spread by eating food or drinking water that is contaminated by the feces of an infected person. Hepatitis A is common in countries without modern sanitation, and when outbreaks occur in the U.S., it has been traced to imported food. Outbreaks of hepatitis A also occur among those who use drugs or are homeless and men who have sex with other men. Hepatitis A is a short-term disease, lasting from a few weeks to several months.
  • Hepatitis B commonly occurs from needlestick exposures — such as non-sterile needles, tattoo needles and healthcare accidents — as well as from blood product exposure, sexual contact and perinatal exposure. The virus may be present in blood and body secretions, including saliva, tears, vaginal secretions and breast milk. Like hepatitis A, hepatitis B also may last a few weeks. However, it also can become a serious, chronic condition and is a leading cause of liver cancer. Ninety percent of infants who develop the disease are likely to have it as a lifelong condition.
  • Hepatitis C is transmitted from blood products and blood exposure, through intravenous (IV) drugs, tattoo needles, newborn deliveries and sexual transmission. Many people with hepatitis C are unaware they have it, yet it is a leading cause of liver transplants and liver cancer.

Symptoms of Hepatitis AImage of a hepatitis virus

Although 70 percent of those with hepatitis A will have symptoms, nearly a third of them won’t, particularly among adults. In children, symptoms are even more difficult to notice, with 70 percent of children under age 6 displaying no signs. Those with symptoms may have a fever, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, tiredness and headache. Other symptoms include muscle or joint pain and diarrhea. The stool will turn pale or clay colored and urine is dark. Jaundice also may develop.

Hepatitis A is diagnosed through a blood test that will indicate elevated liver enzymes and bilirubin. Hepatitis A antibodies will be present even before a person has any symptoms.

How to Treat Hepatitis A

Because hepatitis A is a short-term illness, lasting about two months, no treatment is usually required other than medicine to ease nausea and vomiting. Additional rest may be recommended to address the lack of energy. Most people will recover with no long-term damage to the liver.

Preventing Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A can be prevented with the hepatitis A vaccine. Since the introduction of the vaccine in 1995, the incidence of hepatitis A has decreased by more than 90 percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these groups receive the vaccine:

  • All children at the age of 1
  • Anyone traveling to countries where hepatitis A is common
  • Families of adoptees from countries where the disease is common
  • Men who have sex with other men
  • Those who use drugs, even if not injected
  • People with chronic liver disease, including hepatitis B or C
  • Anyone with clotting-factor disorders
  • Those who are homeless

The vaccine is the best way to avoid hepatitis A. Meticulously washing your hands after using the restroom and before preparing food also can help reduce the risk of becoming infected.

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