Hepatitis A is infection of the liver with the hepatitis A virus. About 150,000 people are infected every year in the United States. Most people recover in 2 to 6 months without serious health problems.
People with hepatitis A very rarely develop liver failure.
The cause is the hepatitis A virus. Food (such as shellfish from polluted water) or water contaminated with infected stools (bowel movements) can spread the virus. The most common source of spread is infected food handlers who don’t wash their hands well after using the bathroom. Direct contact with infected people will pass the infection to others. Outbreaks occur most often in day care centers, military bases, and institutions for disabled. In more than 40% of cases, it isn’t known how people get infected.
Not all people have symptoms. Symptoms may occur, usually during the first month following infection. The main symptom is jaundice (yellow skin and whites of the eyes), plus pale or clay-colored stools, dark urine, and itching all over the body. Flu-like symptoms of fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, low-grade fever, and pain in the abdomen (belly) in the liver area may occur before jaundice.
The health care provider will do a physical examination and a blood test to show antibody to the virus. The antibody is a substance made by the immune, or infection-fighting, system. Liver function tests will also be much higher than normal.
No specific treatment exists. Most people can be cared for at home. Proper rest for several days after diagnosis is important. During this time, intimate contact with other people should be avoided. The diet should be balanced and include high-calorie foods. People who come in close contact with the infected person and who have not been previously vaccinated should be given immune serum globulin within 2 weeks of exposure by their physician.
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