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Hepatitis A is a highly contagious viral infection of the liver that affects people from all walks of life.
The average time between exposure to the hepatitis A virus and the development of symptoms is about 28 days. During the acute phase, hepatitis A resembles a flu-like illness with yellowing of the skin and eyes (known as jaundice), fever, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, dark urine or diarrhea. Symptoms typically last 3-6 weeks but can persist up to six months.
The health impact of hepatitis A can be mild and last for a short time or be very serious and cause liver failure and death. Hepatitis A rarely causes serious long-term health problems. In the United States, hepatitis is the most common vaccine-preventable disease.
How is hepatitis A shared?
Children who are infected often have no symptoms. However, three of four adults who get hepatitis A have symptoms. Symptoms usually develop over several days. A person can spread hepatitis A about a week before symptoms appear.
The hepatitis A virus is normally found in the feces of infected people. It is spread by close personal contact with someone else who has the infection or by ingesting contaminated food or water.
The virus can survive on a person's hand or on a surface for 3-4 hours at normal room temperatures. Thus, an eating utensil contaminated with the virus could be a way to transmit the infection to a person.
Contaminated shellfish are also a frequent source of infection, so eating raw shellfish harvested from sewage-contaminated water or swallowing contaminated water or ice may also lead to hepatitis. Additionally, you can get hepatitis A by eating fruits, vegetables or other foods that became contaminated during handling.
How's hepatitis A diagnosed?
Hepatitis A is diagnosed by a blood test that is positive for the antibody to the virus, which appears four weeks after the infection. There are no false positives or negatives with this test.
How can you prevent it?
You should always wash your hands after using the bathroom, changing a diaper and before preparing or eating food.
How can you treat it?
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A once it is contracted. Most patients are told to rest for 1-4 weeks after a diagnosis is made, to avoid intimate contact and to consume foods high in protein.
Sandra Feliciano is a registered public health nurse with the Nashua Division of Public Health and Community Services.
© 2003, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire