Hepatitis A is a viral disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus, and can result in serious liver damage, a liver transplant, or even death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that about 2,500 Americans are infected yearly, and 76 of those cases end in death.
Most people are vaccinated for hepatitis A by the time they are 2 years old, although the vaccination can be administered at any age. The vaccination process requires two doses within six months for lifelong protection.
People who are not vaccinated, however, can contract the virus by eating contaminated food or water, or coming into contact with an infectious person, usually someone who hasn’t washed their hands properly after having a bowel movement.
Symptoms usually present two to six weeks after the virus is contracted and can last as long as two months. Symptoms can include:
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- joint pain
Infected children can experience severe stomach pains and diarrhea. In some cases, jaundice – which presents as yellowish skin, dark urine, or clay-colored bowel movements – can result.
The great majority of people who contract hepatitis A recover within two months, and subsequently are immune from catching it again. Serious complications can arise, however, for people over the age of 50, people with chronic liver disease, or those with weakened immune systems.
Those complications can produce a sudden and acute loss of liver function, which requires hospitalization. In the most severe cases, a liver transplant might be necessary, or fulminant hepatitis can occur.
Fulminant hepatitis is a rare syndrome in which severe liver failure develops anywhere from days to weeks after infection with the hepatitis A virus. Symptoms of fulminant hepatitis can be:
- blood clotting
- buildup of fluid in the abdominal cavity, arms, or legs
- altered consciousness, which often leads to coma
There is no cure or medicine for fulminant hepatitis, which requires hospitalization in an intensive-care unit. Often, a liver transplant becomes necessary. People under the age of 40 are more likely to recover.
The World Health Organization reports that the hepatitis A virus is one of the most frequent causes of foodborne infection across the globe. Epidemics can be explosive; an epidemic in Shanghai in 1988 affected almost 300,000 people.