People develop hepatitis A infection after contracting HAV. This virus is typically transmitted by ingesting food or liquid contaminated with fecal matter that contains the virus. Once transmitted, the virus spreads through the bloodstream to the liver, where it causes inflammation and swelling.
In addition to transmission from eating food or drinking water containing HAV, the virus can also be spread by close personal contact with an infected person. HAV is contagious, and a person who has hepatitis A can easily pass the disease to others living in the same household.
You can contract hepatitis A by:
- eating food prepared by someone with the hepatitis A virus
- eating food handled by preparers who don’t follow strict hand-washing routines before touching food that you eat
- eating sewage-contaminated raw shellfish
- not using condoms when having sex with someone who has the hepatitis A virus
- drinking polluted water
- coming in contact with hepatitis A-infected fecal matter
If you contract the virus, you will be contagious two weeks before symptoms even appear. The contagious period will end about one week after symptoms appear.
The No. 1 way to avoid getting hepatitis A is by getting the hepatitis A vaccine. This vaccine is given in a series of two injections, 6 to 12 months apart.
If you’re traveling to a country where hepatitis A transmission is more common, get your vaccination at least two weeks before traveling. It usually takes two weeks after the first injection for your body to start building immunity to hepatitis A. If you’re not traveling for at least a year, it’s best to get both injections before leaving.
Check your destination on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site to see if you should get a hepatitis A vaccination.
To limit your chance of contracting hepatitis A, you should also:
- thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water before eating or drinking, and after using the restroom
- drink bottled water rather than local water in developing countries, or in countries where there’s a high risk of contracting hepatitis A
- dine at established, reputable restaurants, rather than from street vendors
- avoid eating peeled or raw fruit and vegetables in an area with low sanitation or hygienic standards
Who Should Get the Hepatitis A Vaccine?
The CDC recommends that all children between ages 12 months and 23 months get this vaccine.
The following people are also at risk for the disease and should be vaccinated:
- Children and teens through age 18 who live in states or communities that have made this vaccination routine because of a high rate of disease
- Men who have sex with men
- Anyone who uses illegal drugs
- People with chronic (long-term) liver disease
- Anyone treated with blood clotting drugs, such as people with hemophilia
- People who work with HAV-infected primates or in HAV research laboratories. (HAV is like HIV in animals.)
- Travelers to countries where hepatitis A is common. A good source to check is the CDC’s travelers’ health website, which you can search by the country you’re going to.
- People adopting or close to a child adopted from a country where hepatitis A is common
You should not get the vaccine if you’re allergic to any ingredients in it or if you had a severe allergic reaction to an earlier dose of it. Tell your doctor or pharmacist about any allergies you have.
If you’re pregnant, let your doctor know. The safety of this vaccine for pregnant women is unknown, although the risk is considered to be very low.
Resources: Graphics by Kyle Berard with Plasma Med Research, healthline.com, webmd.com