In 2006, infants in the United States started getting the hepatitis A vaccine.
So why should anyone worry about hepatitis A today?
“If you’ve gotten the vaccine, there is no worry,” said Dr. Kenneth Vega, division chief of gastroenterology and co-director of the Augusta University Health Digestive Health Center.
But—there are still potentially millions of unvaccinated adults in the United States who are at risk. And the headlines show it.
“Outbreak: Hepatitis A cases surge in New Jersey with 6 dead, more than 500 infected,” says one article on NorthJersey.com, part of the USA Today Network. “Hepatitis A rates high in Southwest Virginia,” says the Bristol Herald Courier. And then there’s this, a little closer to home: “Hepatitis A outbreak declared in South Carolina,” according to the Aiken Standard.
Why Hepatitis A Is Dangerous
Hepatitis A is a virus that attacks your liver. If you Google hepatitis A, you’ll find that most people recover from the viral illness on their own, with no serious complications and no treatment necessary.
“But a small percentage of people can get what we call fulminant hepatitis, which is liver failure,” said Vega. “The virus injures the liver to the point that the patient requires transplantation in order to survive.”
Those at highest risk are those who already have liver problems, children and people older than 60.
And even though Google says there are usually no serious complications, the illness you get from hepatitis A isn’t easy. Patients feel like they have the flu, with fatigue, fever, pain at the top of their abdomen, joint aches, skin rash or lesions, and nausea or vomiting—all of which can last for weeks or even months.
Treating—and Preventing—Hepatitis A
Just like any virus, such as the cold or flu, there’s not really any good medicine that can treat the actual virus. “You have to just let it run its course,” said Vega.
Supportive care is what families should focus on. Soft, easily digestible foods are best. Pain can be treated with low-dose ibuprofen, but Vega cautions against acetaminophen. “Too-large doses or doses taken with alcohol are toxic to the liver, which is already damaged from the virus,” he said.
Any household with a family member with hepatitis A should make sure that everyone has been vaccinated. They also be very careful about hygiene. Don’t share utensils or food, clean up any bodily fluids using gloves and disinfecting with bleach, and toss soiled clothing or sheets after placing them in a plastic bag. If you prefer to wash, sort contaminated clothing or sheets separately from your regular load, and wash them twice, using detergent and bleach if possible, then dry at the highest temperature setting.
“Remember, handwashing is good no matter where you go,” said Vega. “So make sure to always wash your hands.”
The Ick Factor
Restaurant workers who have tested positive for hepatitis A make headlines because the disease can be easy to transmit through contaminated food, water or other items handled by a person with hepatitis A—if that person was careless about bathroom hygiene and left a small amount of stool on their hands.
It’s also more easily spread if you are taking care of someone with hepatitis A, through sex (especially men who have sex with other men) and if you use drugs.
Once a person has gotten the virus, the incubation period for hepatitis A lasts about a month. During that time, that person won’t have any symptoms, but is still contagious, and continues to be contagious for a week after the person starts to show signs of being sick.
If you know you’ve been exposed to hepatitis A and you aren’t already vaccinated, you can get the vaccine. It won’t keep you from getting sick, but it will make the illness milder—but you have to get the vaccine within the first two weeks of exposure.
So the lesson here: “Get yourself vaccinated,” said Vega. “Once you get the vaccine, you don’t need to worry about it again.”