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Curious About Hepatitis A? Here’s an Overview

A diagnosis of hepatitis can sound scary. After all, the term refers to inflammation of the liver, a vital organ that filters blood, detoxifies chemicals and metabolizes fats, proteins and carbohydrates. But it’s important to remember that there are several types of hepatitis, usually caused by one of several viruses that can infect your liver. And not all of them typically cause serious or life-threatening health problems.

Hepatitis A, though highly contagious, is a form of the disease that most people recover from with no permanent liver damage. However, if you’ve been diagnosed with hepatitis A or you suspect that you’ve been exposed to the virus, it’s important to seek medical treatment right away. Your primary care physician is the best medical professional to consult with first. You can also click here to use Tampa General Hospital’s Physician Finder to locate one of our doctors or contact our Liver Disease and Hepatology Program at 1-800-505-7769 for information about our services for patients with hepatitis A.

Here are the answers to some of the most common questions about hepatitis A:

What are the First Signs of Hepatitis A?

When a person becomes infected with the hepatitis A virus, symptoms typically don’t develop until a few weeks later, while some people with hepatitis A never develop any symptoms. Some people develop relatively mild symptoms that may include nausea, abdominal pain, jaundice, itching and low-grade fever. These symptoms usually last no more than a few weeks. However, a hepatitis A infection can become serious and last for several months.

What Causes Hepatitis A?

Most people get this form of hepatitis by eating or drinking something that’s contaminated with fecal material from a person who has the virus. In some cases, it can be spread through sexual contact with an infected individual.

Who is at Risk for Hepatitis A?

Anyone who lives with or engages in sexual activity with an infected person has a higher risk of contracting the illness. Children and teachers in daycare settings, people who travel to countries where the virus is common and people who use illegal drugs all have an elevated chance of contracting hepatitis A.

Is There a Risk of Complications from Hepatitis A?

Although most people who contract hepatitis A recover fully with no lasting liver damage, a small proportion – usually people 50 and older – develop life-threatening complications that may require a liver transplant. These complications may include liver failure, pancreatitis and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare but serious condition in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes even paralysis.

Is There a Cure for Hepatitis A?

There is no specific treatment or medication to cure hepatitis A. For most people, the inflammation and symptoms will clear on their own in six months or less. If you have hepatitis A, it’s important to rest, drink plenty of clear fluids to avoid dehydration and refrain from alcohol consumption and medicines like acetaminophen that can strain the liver.

Can Hepatitis A be Prevented?

Practicing good hygiene, especially washing your hands thoroughly before eating and preparing meals, is one of the best ways to avoid contracting or spreading the hepatitis A virus. Another is thoroughly cooking food before consumption, as heating food and water to at least 185 degrees will kill the virus. Additionally, some people may benefit from getting vaccinated against the illness. Experts recommend vaccines for children over age 1, people who are planning to travel to developing countries, men who are sexually active with other men, people who use illegal drugs and people with impaired immune symptoms or chronic liver disease. Those who believe they may have been exposed to hepatitis A can possibly prevent the illness by receiving an injection of immune serum globulin, a sterile solution of antibodies derived from blood, within two weeks after exposure.

Tampa General Hospital’s Liver Disease and Hepatology Program is committed to helping people cope with and conquer the complex medical conditions that can result from diseases of the body’s vital organs, including the liver. If you or someone you know is experiencing the debilitating symptoms of liver disease, call 1-800-505-7769 to find out how we can help.