Hepatitis A is a viral infection of the liver caused by the Hepatitis A virus (HAV). It also can be caused by some medications and chemicals that damage the liver.
Hepatitis literally refers to any inflammation of the liver. In fact, there are five forms of acute viral Hepatitis that are often clinically indistinguishable from one another. These diseases are unrelated to each other except by the fact that they all cause liver damage.
It is important not to confuse hepatitis A with any other viral Hepatitis. Each has its own mode of transmission and associated risk factors. Hepatitis A, for example, is transmitted by the fecal-oral route, whereas Hepatitis B is often transmitted through sexual contact or IV drug abuse.
Hepatitis A, formerly called infectious hepatitis, is most common in children in developing countries, but is being seen more frequently in developed nations and is the most frequent cause of hepatitis in the United States.
Hepatitis A is thought to be spread by a virus from an infected person’s feces that is directly or indirectly contaminating food, raw shellfish, drinking water, cooking utensils or someone else’s fingers. People most at risk are children who go to day care, international travelers, military personnel stationed abroad, homosexual males, and close contacts of people infected with hepatitis A.
The most common symptoms of hepatitis A are fatigue, nausea and/or vomiting, low fever, loss of appetite, dark urine, rash, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin). Symptoms and signs of hepatitis A can range from none to minimal in the early stages of the illness, to noticeable nausea, abdominal pain, fever, and malaise in the acute phase.
The incubation period is two to six weeks after infection. Hepatitis A is considered an acute condition.
The doctor will take a thorough medical history and may palpate the area over the liver to check for tenderness or enlargement.
If the skin becomes jaundiced and the person is exhibiting other symptoms of hepatitis, the doctor will do various lab tests, such as blood tests and liver panel tests. Additional lab tests include the hepatitis A antibody tests ELISA II and RIBA II.
Rarely, the doctor may also perform a liver biopsy where a small portion of the liver would be taken for further examination under a microscope.
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A, and most people recover completely from and spontaneously. Hospitalization is usually only required if the patient is dehydrated or if the symptoms are severe. At home, getting adequate bed-rest and drinking plenty of fluids will be recommended during recovery. The doctor will also recommend abstinence from alcohol and from drugs that are harmful to the liver during this time.
Who is at risk of contracting hepatitis A?
What preventive measures can be taken?
Is there any damage to the liver?
What if I become pregnant?
To prevent hepatitis A, remember to:
- Wash hands well after using any washroom.
- Eat only freshly cooked foods.
- Drink only commercially bottled water or boiled water in places where sanitation and the water supply are questionable.
- Do not drink drinks with ice in them.
- Do not eat non-peelable raw fruits or vegetables unless cleaned thoroughly.
- Maintain a reasonably high index of suspicion while traveling anywhere and be appropriately cautious about ingesting food or water where one might suspect hepatitis A is more common.
- Get a hepatitis A vaccination before traveling to areas such as Mexico, eastern Europe and developing countries. Short term protection for hepatitis A can also be provided by immune globulin, including its administration up to two weeks following exposure.