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Hepatitis A is a contagious liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. The CDC estimates that nearly 25,000 people contracted hepatitis A in the United States in 2007, although the number of reported cases is much lower because some people do not show symptoms. Most people who contract hepatitis A will recover completely, but an estimated 100 people die from the infection every year in the United States.
People become infected with hepatitis A when they orally ingest the fecal matter—even just microscopic traces—of infected individuals. This usually happens in one of two ways:
Hepatitis A is common in certain areas of the world where there is poor sanitation. Several outbreaks in the United States and elsewhere have also been associated with injecting and non-injecting drug use.
Hepatitis A does not always cause obvious symptoms. Some people may experience mild symptoms lasting one to two weeks, while others will have more severe symptoms that can last for several months. Generally, the severity of the illness increases with age, which is why children infected with the hepatitis A virus usually do not exhibit any symptoms. Symptoms of hepatitis A include the following:
Symptoms can appear anywhere from two to six weeks after exposure. However, it’s important to note that infected people are contagious up to two weeks before they show any symptoms at all.
Health care providers review symptoms and can diagnose hepatitis A with a blood test, which will reveal the presence of antibodies to hepatitis A virus.
There are no medicines for treating hepatitis A infection after a person acquires it. In milder cases, doctors usually prescribe rest, plenty of fluids, and a nutritious diet. While the body fights hepatitis A, a person should avoid any medications—over-the-counter or prescribed—that could damage the liver. Sufferers should also avoid alcohol during the recovery period, as alcohol may also cause damage to the liver.
The best way to prevent hepatitis A is to be vaccinated. The vaccine has been available since the 1990s, and health experts recommend it for travelers going to Africa, Asia, Central and South America, or Eastern Europe. People with certain allergic conditions and pregnant women may be encouraged to avoid the vaccine.
For those who are not vaccinated, the best ways to prevent hepatitis A infection are practicing good sanitation and hygiene and avoiding contaminated food and water, especially when traveling in countries where hepatitis A is common.
Taking immunoglobulin (a protein that fights infection) will help keep people from getting sick when they have been exposed to the hepatitis A virus during an outbreak.