Viral Hepatitis A
What is hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a health problem that affects the liver. It is relatively uncommon in the UK and is most often found in countries where there is poor sanitation. Mild cases diagnosed in the UK involve people who have recently returned from travelling abroad. Hepatitis A causes the liver to become inflamed and it can cause unpleasant symptoms, but most patients are able to achieve full recovery.
What causes hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is caused by a viral infection which is passed through the stools of people who have the infection. This is why it can spread very easily in areas where cleanliness is poor and living conditions are crowded.
One of the most common reasons for the development of hepatitis A is through eating food which is contaminated by the stools of a person with the infection; the illness can spread if somebody has cooked without washing their hands, for example. It is furthermore possible to develop hepatitis A due to drinking water that is contaminated and by eating undercooked food (especially seafood).
Symptoms of hepatitis A
Some individuals with hepatitis A only develop mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, though it is common for flu-like symptoms to develop. In most cases symptoms start to develop between 2 and 7 weeks after an individual is infected with the virus. Other symptoms may include:
- Loss of appetite.
- Nausea and sickness.
- Jaundice (this causes the skin and whites of the eyes to appear yellow and urine to be darker than usual; this is caused by the liver being unable to remove bilirubin).
- Abdominal pain.
- Tiredness and general weakness.
- An aching pain around the liver.
For most people hepatitis A brings about mild symptoms but in rare cases it can be serious. Possible difficulties of hepatitis A include severe inflammation of the liver, which can eventually cause liver failure.
Unlike other types of hepatitis, hepatitis A does not develop into a chronic condition.
How is hepatitis A diagnosed?
Your GP may diagnose hepatitis A based on your symptoms, but they will conduct tests to confirm a diagnosis. A blood test can be used to confirm a diagnosis; the test detects the presence of the antibody against the hepatitis A virus. If your doctor suspects that you have hepatitis A they may also order liver function tests. These tests allow doctors to see how well the liver is working and whether it is inflamed or not.
If you have come into close contact with somebody who has hepatitis A it is advisable to see your GP even if you have not experienced any symptoms associated with the infection.
Treatment for hepatitis A
In most cases no specific treatment is required for hepatitis A. The condition typically departs of its own accord (usually after around 2 months) as a consequence of the body’s immune system fighting the infection. It is uncommon for patients with hepatitis A to require hospital treatment, but you may be advised to go into hospital if you suffer from severe symptoms or persistent vomiting, which would be contributing to dehydration.
The aim of treatment for hepatitis A is to ease symptoms, so your GP may advise you to take painkillers and anti-sickness medication. During the recovery period it is important that you clean your hands on a regular basis (especially after a trip to the toilet and before cooking), avoid alcohol and fatty foods; steering clear of fatty foods will help to reduce nausea.
If you are diagnosed with hepatitis A it is important that you try to decrease the danger of spreading the infection by washing your hands and using protection during sexual intercourse. You should talk to your doctor about when it is safe and advisable for you to go back to work or to take your child back to nursery or school.
Preventing hepatitis A
There is a vaccine which protects against hepatitis A but this is usually only recommended for people who are journeying to countries in which the illness is widespread. This includes countries in some parts of Asia, Africa and Central America. You may also be advised to have a hepatitis A vaccination if you are going to certain parts of Southern or Eastern Europe. If you are planning to travel abroad it is a good idea to check if you need any vaccinations before you go. You should see your doctor well in advance as some vaccinations have to be ordered or given a set period of time before your departure. Travel information is available from the Foreign Office, the NHS and Department of Health websites and the World Health Organisation.
Vaccination is the best way of preventing hepatitis A, but you can also take steps to lessen the chances of developing an infection by adopting good hygiene habits. It is especially important to clean your hands after any trips to the toilet as well as before preparing food. If you are journeying abroad it is a good idea to avoid tap water and foods that have been cleaned in tap water. Always drink bottled water and ensure that the food you eat is cooked properly.