One of several types of viral hepatitis, hepatitis A, is a very contagious infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus. About 10 million people worldwide are diagnosed with this disease every year. Most of them are infected by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, or being in close contact with someone who already has the disease.
Hepatitis A causes inflammation of the liver and affects the liver's ability to function. Symptoms of infection can include, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain/discomfort, loss of appetite, slight fever, dark urine, muscle pain, itching, and jaundice. These symptoms can take up to a month to appear though some people may not exhibit any symptoms at all. Other people may experience a relapse of symptoms six to nine months after the initial infection. Often, the symptoms for hepatitis A are confused with those for influenza.
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People who have any of the above symptoms or otherwise suspect that they were exposed to the virus should see a doctor. Blood tests can be performed to detect hepatitis by measuring levels of bilirubin and aminotransferase enzymes. A radioimmunoassay can then be performed to determine the exact type of hepatitis by identifying antibodies in the immune system.
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A. People infected with the virus are advised to get adequate nutrition and plenty of rest to allow their livers to recover. As a result, the use of alcohol should also be avoided while the infection is present. During and after infection, alcohol and acetaminophen (like Tylenol®) should not be taken together in order to avoid any additional liver damage.
Certain groups of people are more at risk of contracting hepatitis A. These groups include drug users, hemophiliacs, and gay and bisexual men. People who visit areas with high rates of hepatitis A, or have exposure to the virus in work settings also have a higher risk of getting the virus. Prevention is possible through vaccination and good hygiene practices.
The hepatitis A vaccine is made from an inactivated form of the virus and provides protection in 95% of cases for at least 10 years. The vaccine is given in the muscle of the upper arm, with the initial dose followed by a booster six to 12 months later. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides recommendations as to who should be vaccinated (e.g., children over one year of age, people who work around the virus, and people who live where an outbreak is present).