Foodborne Illness

Common bacteria and viruses that cause food poisoning. An informational site sponsored by Marler Clark

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is the only common foodborne disease preventable by vaccine. It is one of five hepatitis viruses that infect the liver. While hepatitis B and C can turn into chronic hepatitis, hepatitis A generally does not; although it can lead to liver failure and death.

Hepatitis A is rare in the United States, with 30,000 to 50,000 cases occurring each year. However, in most other countries, poorer sanitation systems lead to easier transmission of the disease, and therefore more cases.

Hepatitis A is a contagious disease. It travels in feces, and can spread from person to person, or can be contracted from food or water. In cases of contaminated food, it is usually the person preparing the food who contaminates it. The food handler will probably not know they have the virus, since the virus is most likely to be passed on in the first two weeks of illness, before a person begins to show symptoms.

Symptoms of Hepatitis A

Symptoms of hepatitis A usually appear around 28 days after infection, but can start as early as two weeks after catching the virus. Only 30 percent of children with the virus actually develop symptoms. Early symptoms of this hepatitis virus include:

  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Fever
  • Weakness and fatigue

After a few days of experiencing these symptoms, 70 percent of patients develop jaundice, a yellowing of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. Jaundice also causes dark urine and light, clay-colored feces.

Length of Symptoms

Symptoms usually last less than two months, although they sometimes last up to six months, and jaundice can linger for up to eight months. Patients can also experience severely itchy skin for a few months after symptoms first appear. Most patients fully recover.

Complication of Hepatitis A

An acute hepatitis A case can develop into Fulminant Hepatitis A. This is a rare but severe complication of Hepatitis A, in which the toxins from the hepatitis virus kill an abnormally high number of liver cells (around ¾ of the liver’s total cells), and the liver begins to die.  Fifty percent of patients with this condition require an immediate liver transplant to avoid death. Fulminant hepatitis A can also cause further complications, including muscular dysfunction and multiple organ failure.

Diagnosis of Hepatitis A

Hepatitis symptoms can be extremely similar among all human forms of hepatitis. Therefore a blood test is needed to determine the specific hepatitis virus one has. The virus shows up in a person’s blood 10 to 12 days after a person is infected, at which point a doctor can draw a blood sample to determine which form of hepatitis a person has.

Prevention of Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is completely avoidable, since a hepatitis A vaccine exists to prevent it. However, since the vaccine only became recommended for all children in 2006, many people are not vaccinated. Hepatitis transmission is still possible, and prevention techniques are still important. Food handlers should always wash hands after using the bathroom or changing a diaper and before preparing food.

Prevention of Acute Hepatitis After Infection

After a person has been exposed to Hepatitis A, immune globulin (IG) is 80 to 90 percent effective in preventing clinical hepatitis when it is injected within two weeks of exposure.

Who should get the Hepatitis A Vaccine?

Starting in 2006, this hepatitis vaccine became recommended for all children ages 12-23 months. The vaccine is also recommended for the following groups of people:

  • Travelers to areas with higher rates of hepatitis A
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Drug users (both injecting and non-injecting)
  • Those with blood clotting disorders (e.g. hemophilia)
  • Those with chronic liver disease
  • Those who risk infection in the workplace (e.g. hospital or laboratory workers)
  • Children living in regions of the U.S. with increased rates of hepatitis A
  • Members of households with an adopted child arriving from a country with a high rate of Hepatitis A

Treating Hepatitis A

Once the symptoms for hepatitis A appear, there is no direct treatment for the virus. Patients should rest according to how tired they feel, and should receive enough nutrition either by eating or through fluids, since the disease can cause a lack of appetite.

Treatment for Fulminant Hepatitis A

Treatment for this complication will vary depending on a person’s individual case. In cases of advanced liver failure, a liver transplant may be the only option available to avoid death.

Additional Resources for Hepatitis A

About-Hepatitis.com is a comprehensive site with in-depth information about hepatitis A virus and hepatitis A infection.

Hepatitis Blog provides up-to-date news related to hepatitis A outbreaks, research, and more.