Hepatitis A

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at June 25, 2016
StartDiseasesHepatitis A

While instances of hepatitis A are on the decline, epidemics continue to take place around the world every few years. This particular disease is caused by the hepatitis A virus that attacks and weakens an individual's immune system. Most cases of hepatitis A are not dangerous as long as the condition is caught in its earliest stages and the patient continues to receive medical care. When it is left untreated, this viral infection can cause acute liver failure though, unlike hepatitis B and hepatitis C is not associated with chronic liver disease.

Contents

Definition & Facts

Hepatitis A is just one of the five hepatitis viruses that attack the liver. Within a short period of time, these viruses result in severe inflammation which impairs the liver's ability to function properly. Very mild cases of hepatitis A generally do not need to be treated unless the patient has a compromised immune system or damaged liver. For more severe cases, however, liver failure is a very real possibility.

After the hepatitis A vaccine was developed, hepatitis A outbreaks have become rare in most parts of the world. Because the liver is vital to an individual's digestive system, people with hepatitis A will often experience problems with their appetite and bowel movements.

Symptoms & Complaints

Most people will not show any symptoms until they have had the virus for two to three weeks. During this time, a patient's body will continue to battle the foreign cells until their immune system has become exhausted.

The most common symptoms of hepatitis A are nearly identical to the side effects of the stomach flu. This includes chronic fatigue, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, a mild fever, insomnia, and a suppressed appetite.

Many patients also have difficulties urinating and defecating. In severe cases, patients might show signs of jaundice including yellowing of the eyes and skin. These symptoms will often linger for months at a time. Many patients complain of recurring digestive problems for upwards of nine months after first coming into contact with the virus. 

Causes

Casual contact does not spread hepatitis A. People primarily contract hepatitis A through food or water sources that have been contaminated with fecal matter (the fecal-oral route). This is one of the reasons why outbreaks mostly occur in countries with sanitation problems. When a food or water source has become contaminated, there will often be hundreds or thousands of infections within just a few days.

Unprotected sex and the use of unclean needles are two other major risk factors. Intimate sexual contact with an infected person may place a person at closer proximity to the infected person's feces and increase the likelihood of transmission. It is believed that IV drug users contract the disease through puncturing their skin (percutaneous transmission) and through the fecal-oral route.

Restaurant outbreaks are another possibility, but these events are relatively rare in most countries with stringent laws regarding food handling and preparation. Anyone who has eaten at a restaurant that reported a recent outbreak should be tested immediately. 

Diagnosis & Tests

After experiencing any of the hallmark symptoms of hepatitis A for more than a few days, a patient should immediately schedule an appointment with their primary healthcare provider. It is also important for patients to ask to be tested if they have knowingly come into contact with anyone who has this virus.

Doctors will generally begin the diagnostic process by going over all of the symptoms with the patient to determine their severity and longevity. Factoring out other illnesses such as the stomach flu or other types of food poisoning will make the diagnosis easier and more accurate.

After all other illnesses have been ruled out, a blood test must be administered. The doctor will remove a small sample of blood from the patient before sending it off to a laboratory. Instead of looking for the virus itself, the laboratory will actually look for the proteins a body makes when it comes into contact with hepatitis A. These tests must also rule out all other forms of hepatitis before a treatment plan can be made. 

Treatment & Therapy

Once the virus has been identified, the patient and their doctor will need to begin exploring comprehensive lifestyle changes. This often begins with a closer look at any medications or supplements the patient is currently taking. The use of any products that affect one's immune system or liver might need to be suspended. If the medication is absolutely vital, then alternatives must be found to prevent permanent damage.

For mild to moderate cases, patients should rest as much as possible, drink plenty of fluids, and stick to a healthy diet. This will help speed up their recovery and prevent nutritional deficiencies from taking place in the coming months.

Some moderate to severe cases require hospitalization, but these instances are relatively rare. The most common reason for a hepatitis A patient to visit the hospital is dehydration. Those who are diagnosed with this virus should also avoid all sexual activity, wash their hands as much as possible, and limit their contact with others. 

Prevention & Prophylaxis

While this form of hepatitis might lead to months of discomfort, it can often be avoided entirely with some basic sanitation and hygiene practices. This includes washing one's hands regularly, washing foods before they are cooked, and drinking only filtered water. Those who are visiting countries with poor sanitation should drink bottled water as much as possible and avoid any foods that might be contaminated.

It is also recommended that healthy children and adults receive their hepatitis A shots as soon as possible. This particular vaccine should be administered to children before their first birthday with a booster shot six months later. Many professionals are required by their company or by law to receive a hepatitis A vaccine. This includes healthcare workers, lab workers, teachers, and those who travel regularly for work.