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Hepatitis A: What Is It?

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You’ve probably heard of hepatitis A, B and C, but did you know each one is caused by a different virus? They all infect the liver, but in different ways. Hepatitis A is usually a short-term infection and does not usually cause long-term problems. Hepatitis B and C both can start as short-term illnesses, but in some people, they can stay in the body a long time, causing long-term liver problems.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

Sometimes, people who are infected with hepatitis A have no symptoms. Adults are more likely than children to show symptoms, which can appear two to seven weeks after infection. People can feel ill with hepatitis A for up to six months. Symptoms include:

  • Yellow skin or eyes
  • Poor appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Fever
  • Dark urine or light-colored stools
  • Diarrhea
  • Joint pain
  • Feeling tired

How is hepatitis A spread?

Hepatitis A is highly contagious. It is spread through the stool of people who are infected with the hepatitis A virus. Even microscopic amounts of the virus can make someone sick.

A person must ingest the virus in order to be infected. People can spread the virus before they feel sick. Infection with the virus can happen by:

  • Close, personal contact with an infected person
  • Caring for an infected person
  • Using drugs with other people
  • Eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated drinks

Who is most at risk for infection?

  • International travelers
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People who inject drugs and all those who use illegal drugs
  • People who are homeless
  • Note: People who have chronic liver disease or HIV are at higher risk of severe illness

How can I avoid getting hepatitis A?

The good news is that hepatitis A is preventable by a vaccine. This vaccine is a routine part of the childhood vaccination schedule. Hepatitis B also can be prevented by a vaccine. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

There are two types of hepatitis A vaccines. The first type is a single-dose hepatitis A vaccine, given as two shots, six months apart, and both shots are needed for long-term protection against hepatitis A. The other type is a combination vaccine that protects against both hepatitis A and hepatitis B. This vaccine can be given to anyone age 18 years and older and is given as three shots over six months. All three shots are needed for long-term protection for both hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

It’s also important to practice good hand hygiene. Washing your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and water or cleaning your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60% to 95% alcohol before preparing and eating food, after using the restroom, after changing diapers, and before and after caring for sick people can help prevent the spread of hepatitis A, as well as other illnesses.

Who should get vaccinated for hepatitis A?

Children should get the vaccine as part of their regular immunization schedule at ages 12-23 months. Older children and teenagers who haven’t had the vaccine can get a “catch-up’’ vaccine.

Others who should get the vaccine include:

  • People in the high-risk group mentioned above (international travelers, men who have sex with men, people who are homeless and people who inject drugs or use illegal drugs).
  • People with chronic liver disease or HIV
  • Pregnant women who are at risk for hepatitis A
  • Anyone who requests a vaccine

Where can I get the hepatitis A vaccine?

Contact Ochsner Primary Care, Infectious Disease, Ochsner Pharmacy or your doctor about getting the hepatitis A vaccine.

Make a primary care appointment at Ochsner.

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2014 has been a remarkable year in the area of liver disease since I’ve been practicing medicine. We are on the cusp of having access to therapies that could essentially make hepatitis C, along with hepatitis B, curable diseases.