Hepatitis A: What You Need to Know About Florida’s Recent Outbreak
Recent cases of hepatitis A in South Florida have raised questions about possible exposure to the illness and how to minimize the likelihood of becoming infected. While the hepatitis A virus is highly contagious, and can live outside the body for months, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk—even after you have been exposed.
What Is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a contagious virus that infects the liver. Unlike hepatitis B and C, which may become chronic, the hepatitis A virus typically ranges from a mild, short-lived illness to a more severe infection that sticks around for several months. Hepatitis A rarely causes long-term liver damage. Most people infected with the virus will recover completely.
In rare cases, hepatitis A can turn deadly—most often among those with underlying medical issues. For example, people over the age of 50, or those who suffer from other liver diseases, should take extra precautions, since they may be more susceptible to liver failure, with death as a possible consequence.
Hepatitis A Transmission
Transmission of hepatitis A is only possible through fecal/oral contact. Exposure through coughing and sneezing will not put you at risk.
Although hepatitis A transmission can occur through close personal contact with an infected person, such as through sex or caring for someone who is ill, it is most often spread via objects, food, or drinks. Transmission occurs when these items become contaminated by undetected amounts of stool from someone infected. In many cases, contaminated food originates from countries where hepatitis A is common, or from areas known for poor sanitary conditions.
Hepatitis A is also more likely to infect certain groups of people. Those at a higher risk include:
- Both injection and non-injection drug users
- Caregivers of recent adoptees from countries where hepatitis A is common
- The homeless and those in unstable housing
- Travelers to countries with a high incidence of hepatitis A
Hepatitis A Symptoms
It typically takes from two to six weeks for hepatitis A symptoms to become obvious. Even before symptoms are evident, the virus can be highly contagious. This is how it spreads so easily.
When symptoms finally appear at about four weeks, they may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Clay-colored stools
- Dark urine
- Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes)
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
Symptoms in adults typically last less than two months. Children under six, however, are not as likely to exhibit obvious symptoms with hepatitis A. Even when symptoms do become evident, they rarely include jaundice. For these reasons, it’s important to closely monitor young children who may have been exposed to the virus.
Preventing Hepatitis A
The two most effective means of preventing hepatitis A are frequent hand washing and the hepatitis A vaccine. Since the virus can live on surfaces for months, proper hand hygiene is essential.
Always wash your hands after touching people or public surfaces, using the bathroom, tobacco use, changing a diaper, coughing, sneezing, using a tissue, eating, or drinking. You should also wash your hands before preparing food or working with unpackaged food items.
Make sure you use soap and warm, running water, while washing for 20 seconds or longer. Unfortunately, alcohol-based sanitizers do not kill hepatitis A germs. Neither will freezing food that has been infected with the virus. Boiling for one minute or longer is the only effective method of killing the hepatitis A virus in food sources.
The vaccine has been shown to be highly effective at preventing hepatitis A—even after exposure, provided it is administered within the first two weeks following contact. Those exposed who have not been vaccinated may benefit from a shot of immune globulin. Again, this option is only effective when administered within a two-week timeframe.
A qualified health professional can help you determine which hepatitis A treatment method is best, based on your age and overall health.
Hepatitis A Treatment
If you suspect you may have been exposed to hepatitis A, treatment should begin immediately. If you choose to be vaccinated or receive immune globulin, you will need to act within the first two weeks of initial exposure for either of these options to be effective.
If you are unsure whether you have previously received the hepatitis A vaccine, a healthcare provider can test for antibodies. However, even if you have received the vaccine previously, receiving it again won’t harm you. All MD Now Urgent Cares carry the hepatitis A vaccine for adults and children.
You may also want to seek appropriate medical care for relief of certain hepatitis A symptoms. MD Now’s physician-led medical centers are comprehensive, state-of-the-art facilities, open from 8 AM to 8 PM daily, throughout Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Indian River counties. Our services are a convenient alternative to the typical long wait time for a doctor’s appointment or sitting for hours in an ER waiting room.
Walk-ins are welcome, and all major insurance plans are accepted. You can check in online at www.MDNow.com, or by calling 888-MDNow-911.