Hepatitis A

  • Basics

    Hepatitis A is an infectious viral illness that attacks the liver. Worldwide, hepatitis A outbreaks often occur in epidemics, meaning that multiple people will catch the disease at the same time at the same location. Sporadic or isolated cases also crop up, however. In the U.S., there are outbreaks of hepatitis about every 10 years, and the number of reported cases can reach 35,000. There is a smaller number of cases yearly in between outbreaks.

    The hepatitis A virus is the most common cause of acute viral hepatitis. Several other viruses also cause hepatitis—hepatitis B, C, D, and E. All of them cause liver disease in one form or another, but hepatitis A is the variety that most often causes sudden liver inflammation (acute hepatitis). Hepatitis A is much less likely than the other varieties to become a long-term (chronic) condition.

    Most people recover from hepatitis A without any lasting problems.

  • Causes

    Hepatitis A is easily passed from person to person. People who have contracted hepatitis A do not have symptoms for up to 40 days, but during that time they shed the virus in their stool. If they then improperly prepare food or fail to wash their hands, the virus can be passed on by what is called fecal-oral transmission. This is why daycare centers, where diapers are handled, are a frequent source of hepatitis A outbreaks.

    Other sources of infection are household contacts or sexual activity; contacts made during international travel; and food or water that has been contaminated. In many cases, however, the initial source of the infection cannot be determined. Casual contacts, such as those at work or school, do not usually spread hepatitis A.

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