Hepatitis A, Symptoms, Treatment & Vaccinations

International travelers need protection against hepatitis A. This viral infection is contagious, common and preventable with an effective vaccine. Travelers should consult with a travel physician to learn how to minimize their risk.

What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a viral infection that infects the liver. It is common in many parts of the world and poses risks for international travelers. Illness severity is variable and most patients make complete recoveries.

How is hepatitis A transmitted?

This disease is transmitted when an individual ingests food or drink that is contaminated with microscopic amounts of infected feces. Physicians and scientists use the term fecal-oral transmission to describe this pathway. For example, travelers in a restaurant can become infected if a cook or a waiter did not practice adequate hygiene after using the rest room. Diners can also become infected if the food was contaminated prior to delivery to the restaurant. Food and beverages that are more likely to harbor the virus include fruits, vegetables, shellfish, ice and water. In the United States and other countries, chlorination eliminates Hepatitis A in the water supply. Fecal-oral transmission can occur in other settings. For example, if an infant is infected with the virus, then anyone who changes a diaper or bathes the child is at risk of contracting Hepatitis A. Finally, certain sexual practices can transmit the hepatitis virus.

What are the symptoms?

Hepatitis A symptoms include fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and joint pains. A characteristic symptom is jaundice when the eyes and skin turn yellow. Jaundice develops gradually and is rarely noticed by the infected person himself. All of these symptoms are called non-specific, meaning that they can occur in many other diseases also. Many people who are infected with hepatitis A have no symptoms at all. These individuals, however, can still spread the disease to others.

How is hepatitis A diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects that you have hepatitis A, then there are accurate blood tests available to establish the diagnosis.

Is treatment available?

Viral diseases generally are not treated with specific medications like antibiotics. Nearly all patients recover fully, although the illness can last for weeks or longer. After recovery, the individual is immune from future hepatitis A infection.

Can hepatitis A be prevented?

Definitely yes! The most effective strategy is vaccination. Hepatitis vaccine is strongly recommended to individual at risk including travelers to parts of the developing world where this infection is common. Even last minute travelers should receive the vaccine as they will still receive protection. Ideally, travelers should meet with a travel physician months before departure to discuss vaccinations against hepatitis A and other a preventable illnesses. Travelers should also be very cautious about where they dine, avoiding questionable establishments where sanitary conditions may be suspect.

What if I am exposed to Hepatitis A?

See your doctor. Depending upon the time of exposure and other circumstances, your doctor may advise the hepatitis A vaccine and other treatments. Of course, if you’ve already been vaccinated, then you are protected.