In the news: What you should know about hepatitis A

This summer has seemingly been the season of food-related medical outbreaks — and one of the latest is an outbreak of hepatitis A in Nashville. But what is that exactly?

Most of us aren’t super familiar with hepatitis in general, or with hepatitis A specifically. So, let’s take a look at the basics about the condition and what’s happening right now.

The types of hepatitis

When someone refers to “hepatitis,” he or she could be talking about several different medical conditions. At its root, hepatitis means an inflammation of the liver, and the condition is usually caused by a virus.

There are five recognized types of hepatitis — A, B, C, D and E. Of those, A, B and C are the most common.

The types differ in how they’re transmitted, their symptoms and how they’re treated.

Defining hepatitis A

This factoid should be easy to remember — hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus.

The virus is typically spread when a person ingests even a tiny amount of fecal matter. Exposure usually comes in the form of food or drink that has been contaminated by feces from a person infected with hepatitis A.

Recently, though, there have also been outbreaks of the condition among those who inject drugs and men who have sex with men. In these cases, hepatitis A is transmitted through close contact with an infected person.

The signs of hepatitis A

In mild cases, a person may experience no symptoms or symptoms that are so unobtrusive that they aren’t bothersome.

If symptoms do emerge, they often appear weeks after a person has been exposed to the virus and may include:

  • Excessive fatigue
  • Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • Low-grade fever
  • Joint pain
  • Itchiness
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort in the area of the liver
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored bowel movements

In severe cases, symptoms may linger for up to several months, but they usually disappear within weeks.

Who’s at risk of hepatitis A?

Well, ultimately anyone can be at risk. But certain groups are at a higher risk of getting the virus, including those who have been in direct contact with someone who has the condition.

Others at a higher risk include:

  • Travelers to countries where hepatitis A is common
  • Men who have sex with men
  • People who use drugs, both injected and not injected
  • Caregivers for recent adoptees from countries where hepatitis A is common
  • Those with clotting disorders
  • Those working with primates

Those at a higher risk of the condition can get the hepatitis A vaccine. Children should also be vaccinated at age 1.

How hepatitis A is treated

If you’re experiencing symptoms of the condition or believe you’ve been exposed to the virus, talk with your doctor.

Receiving either the vaccine or an injection of immunoglobin within two weeks of exposure to the virus can help protect you from infection. Immunoglobin is made from human blood and contains antibodies that help fend off the virus.

Beyond that, the condition is treated by caring for the individual symptoms that crop up.

A doctor will usually recommend rest, a healthy diet and plenty of fluids to help the body rid itself of the virus. In severe cases, hospital treatment might be necessary.

Why hepatitis A has been in the news

Each year, the CDC estimates that around 4,000 new hepatitis A infections occur in the United States. Because there’s an effective vaccine available and hygienic conditions are prevalent in the U.S., we usually hear very little about the condition.

However, recent outbreaks have drawn attention to hepatitis and this type of hepatitis specifically.

Since early last year, large hepatitis A outbreaks have been reported in a number of states, including Kentucky and West Virginia in this area of the country. An outbreak in Nashville has been making recent headlines.

The Metro Public Health Department has confirmed 74 cases of the virus since December of last year. Because of that, there’s an active campaign in Nashville and surrounding areas to spread knowledge about the condition, risk factors and the vaccine.

Dr. Laxmi Parsa is a gastroenterologist specializing in transplant hepatology at Academic Gastroenterologists at Erlanger.

Believe you may have been exposed to hepatitis A recently? Talk with your doctor or learn more about Academic Gastroenterologists at Erlanger.