Hepatitis A is a viral infection of the liver that is transmitted via the “feco-oral route.” This means the infection is acquired when a person consumes water or food that has been contaminated with feces containing hepatitis A.
Hepatitis A can therefore be transmitted if a person eats food prepared by an infected person who has not washed their hands after using the bathroom, for example. Shellfish can also be a source of infection if they have been harvested form areas of the sea that are contaminated with sewage. The infection can also be passed on during sexual intercourse (particularly anal sex) and among drug users who share infected needles to inject drugs. Hepatitis A can also be spread through contaminated ice cubes or vegetables that have been washed in contaminated water.
Symptoms of hepatitis A
Symptoms develop two to six weeks after transmission of the virus. The initial symptoms include:
- Slight fever not usually above 39.5ºC (103.1ºF)
- Fatigue and weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Joint and muscle pain
Around ten days after symptoms begin, these initial symptoms may start to improve and symptoms directly related to the liver start to develop instead. These include jaundice, itchy skin, dark urine, pale stools and pain in the liver.
In most individuals, the symptoms resolve in two to six months and the liver recovers completely. Symptoms are more severe in adults than among children.
A diagnosis of hepatitis A should be suspected if a person has been in contact with an infected individual or if symptoms associated with the infection such as jaundice are present. The infection is diagnosed using a blood test that looks for antibodies to the virus. If this shows a positive reaction to antibodies, a diagnosis of Hepatitis A is confirmed.
In addition, liver function tests are performed to check how well the liver is working, an ultrasound scan is used to view the liver and a biopsy may be taken to examine the liver tissue.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc