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Hepatitis A (formerly known as infectious hepatitis) is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis A virus.
Anyone can get Hepatitis A, but it generally occurs more frequently in children. Children may have mild infections or no symptoms at all and go unrecognized as a case of Hepatitis A. Another group of special concern is young adults from 15 to 30 years of age. People in this age group tend to be more socially active; participating in activities that may involve sharing food, beverages, or other substances. Also, they are frequently employed in occupations, such as food preparation and service, which could provide the opportunity to expose large numbers of other people.
The Hepatitis A virus is spread from the stool (feces) of persons with Hepatitis A. The virus is often carried by minute particles on an infected person’s hands. Hepatitis A can be spread by direct contact, or by placing something in the mouth that has been contaminated by a person infected with Hepatitis A. Very few virus particles are required for transmission of the infection. In some cases, drinking contaminated water can spread it. An increasing number of Hepatitis A cases have been reported in drug users and it is suspected that contaminated drugs or close personal contact is the cause. The sharing of items between users of both injectable and inhalable drugs provides an ideal method for the transmission of the virus. Sneezing or coughing does not spread Hepatitis A.
The symptoms of Hepatitis A may include any or all of the following: fatigue, poor appetite, fever, vomiting, dark urine, and jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and/or whites of eyes). Very few deaths are caused by Hepatitis A. Most people recover in a few weeks without any complications. Infants and young children tend to have no symptoms or very mild symptoms and are less likely to develop jaundice than are older children and adults.
Symptoms appear 15 to 50 days after exposure, but generally 25 to 30 days.
Since there are several types of viral Hepatitis, a blood test is needed to find out which type of Hepatitis is present.
The contagious period begins about 14 days before the symptoms appear and ends about 7 days after jaundice appears. If jaundice is not present, the person should be considered infectious for the 14 days before symptoms started until 14 days after the start of symptoms. Infected persons with or without symptoms can spread the disease to others.
Only supportive treatment is available for Hepatitis A. Generally, rest and good nutrition are all that is needed. Drugs and alcohol should be avoided.
The best way to prevent spread is careful hand washing after using the toilet or changing diapers. Infected people should not prepare or handle food for others during the contagious period. Household members, sex partners, drug partners or others in close contact with an infected person should call a doctor or the health department to get a shot of immune globulin. Immune globulin must be given within 14 days of exposure to be effective. For long-term protection, Hepatitis A vaccine is recommended and may be given simultaneously when administering immune globulin at a separate anatomic injection site.