Hepatitis A is a contagious liver disease caused by a viral infection. While there are very few cases in Canada, it remains widespread in certain countries that lack safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.
Symptoms of hepatitis A appear 15 to 50 days (on average 28 days) after exposure to the virus. They range from mild to very severe. While symptoms usually last 1 to 2 weeks, they can sometimes persist for months. In rare cases, the infection can be fatal.
Hepatitis A doesn't always cause symptoms. Adults are much more likely to be symptomatic than children. Typical symptoms include the following:
- Decreased appetite
- Stomach pains
- Nausea or vomiting
- Muscle pain
- Dark urine
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
Unlike certain cases of hepatitis B and C, hepatitis A does not cause chronic infection. The body is able to fight off the virus within a few weeks. People who recover from hepatitis A develop antibodies that generally provide lifelong immunity to the virus.
Causes and triggers
Hepatitis A is a viral infection. It is caused by the hepatitis A virus. The virus is most often spread through contact with the stool of an infected person. It can be transmitted from person to person or through ingestion of fecal contaminated food or water.
Certain factors increase the risk of contracting hepatitis A:
- Contact with an infected person
- Unprotected sex
- Ingestion of food prepared by an infected person
- Drug use (e.g., sharing used needles)
- Travel to a country with a higher incidence of hepatitis A
Hepatitis A is particularly dangerous for people with the following conditions:
- Chronic liver disease
- Weak immune system
There is no known treatment for hepatitis A. The infection usually clears up on its own. Affected individuals are advised to eat well, stay hydrated, and get lots of rest.
The best way to prevent hepatitis A is to get vaccinated. The following measures can also help prevent infection:
- Washing your hands
- Practising safe sex
- Using sterile syringes or needles
- Being careful about food sanitation when travelling
If you have hepatitis A, consult a health care professional before buying any prescription, over-the-counter, or natural health products, as some may cause liver damage. It's also recommended to avoid alcohol while infected.
When should I see a health care professional?
Speak with your health care provider in the following cases:
- You have symptoms of hepatitis A
- You've been exposed to the virus
- You've eaten food that's been in contact with an infected person
If you think you may have been exposed to hepatitis A, consult a health care professional immediately. Vaccination within 2 weeks of exposure can prevent the disease.
It's also a good idea to consult a health care professional before travelling. Depending on your destination, they may recommend getting the hepatitis A vaccine.