Hepatitis ABCs

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on April 25, 2019

Quick Facts

  • Hepatitis A has increased recently in Virginia and nationwide.
  • The hepatitis A vaccine is the best way to prevent it.
  • Carilion Clinic is the only hospital system in Virginia to have taken steps to slow the spread of hepatitis A during an outbreak. 

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Outbreaks of hepatitis A virus (HAV) have increased recently throughout the country and in Virginia, due in large part to the opioid epidemic. According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), the Commonwealth has seen 45 cases of HAV so far this year.

What Is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a viral inflammation of the liver. The virus is spread through direct contact with another person who has the infection or by consuming contaminated food or drink.
 
The most visible symptom of hepatitis A is jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin or the eyes resulting from a buildup of bilirubin in the liver. Other symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain
  • Joint pain
  • Dark urine and clay-colored stools

How Can You Prevent Infection?
According to Thomas Kerkering, M.D., chief of the Infectious Disease Department at Carilion Clinic, the best way to prevent HAV is by getting vaccinated against it. The two other most important prevention measures are frequent, thorough hand washing and proper cooking.

The hepatitis A vaccine, frequent hand washing and proper food preparation are the best ways to prevent infection. 

Not everyone needs the hepatitis A vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend it for:

  • All children at age 1 year
  • Travelers to countries where hepatitis A is common
  • Family and caregivers of adoptees from countries where hepatitis A is common
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Injection and non-injection drug users
  • People who work with non-human primates
  • People with chronic or long-term liver disease (including hepatitis B or hepatitis C)
  • People with clotting-factor disorders
  • People with direct contact with others who have hepatitis A

"When a state is declared an outbreak state, the state is allowed to determine who is at risk, beyond the usual risk categories," said Dr. Kerkering. 

Vaccines are available from:

Carilion Clinic is the only hospital system in Virginia to have taken steps ahead of this recent outbreak to slow the spread of hepatitis A.

What To Do If You Are Exposed
See your health care provider if you think you have been exposed to HAV.

If you are exposed to the virus and have not received the vaccine, you can still avoid serious illness if you receive the vaccine or a shot of immune globulin during the contagious period, which is about two weeks following exposure.
 
People with hepatitis A should not handle foods at home or at work during the contagious period. Anyone with symptoms—especially those who work in food service, health care or child care—should stay home, and children who have been exposed should avoid school and daycare. 

The symptoms of hepatitis A don’t develop for about two weeks, so it is important to be aware of situations where exposure may occur. All health systems have measures in place to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses, including hepatitis A. VDH has recognized Carilion Clinic as the only hospital system in Virginia to have taken steps ahead of this recent outbreak to slow the spread of hepatitis A.
 
The symptoms of HAV can linger for several months. Rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications can help minimize your symptoms. The CDC recommends cleaning contaminated surfaces with a solution of a quarter-cup of bleach in one gallon of water.

Hepatitis A, B and C
The similar names of hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C can lead to confusion and unneeded worry. All three affect the liver, but they are caused by three distinct viruses and exposure to one virus does not put you at increased risk of the others. In brief:

  • Hepatitis A is an acute viral infection that is easily prevented through vaccination, and the potential spread can be minimized by proper hand washing and food preparation
  • A vaccine is also available to prevent hepatitis B, which can also begin as an acute infection but can become chronic for some people
  • There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, which can be chronic and result in long-term liver problems

Visit the CDC website for more information about distinctions between the three viruses, and how to protect yourself from each. And be sure to talk to your primary care provider about ways that you can minimize your risk to these and other viruses.