The Hepatitis A Virus Loves Summertime

July 29, 2011

As one of five known hepatitis viruses that infect the liver, Hepatitis A is the only common food-borne disease preventable by vaccine. For those who have not yet been vaccinated against this virus, the summer season harbors two risks that increase the likelihood of Hepatitis A transmission.

About Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a contagious illness that travels in feces, and can spread from person to person, or can be contracted from food or water. Although not everyone experiences them, symptoms of Hepatitis A typically appear one month after infection and include:

• Fever

• Weakness and fatigue

• Muscle aches and headache

• Low appetite

• Nausea and/or vomiting

• Stomach cramps

• Diarrhea

• Dark urine

• Jaundice - yellow skin and eyes

Some facts about the Hepatitis A virus include:

• The incubation period (the time from initial exposure to the virus to the onset of symptoms) ranges from 15 to 60 days.

• About half of those infected never show signs of the illness, but they can still spread the Hepatitis A virus.

• Only a blood test can confirm a Hepatitis A diagnosis.

• Those who have had Hepatitis A acquire lifelong immunity to the virus.

• An infected person can spread the virus for 1 to 2 weeks before symptoms start and up to 10 days after jaundice.

• An infected person may potentially shed Hepatitis A viral particles for almost a month.

• Aside from bed rest and over-the-counter medicines, no specific treatment for Hepatitis A is usually required.

• While Hepatitis B and C can turn into chronic hepatitis, Hepatitis A is generally self-limiting. However, complications (especially if someone already has a different type of liver ailment) can and do occur.

Two Summer-Related Causes of Hepatitis A

Mostly transmitted by person-to-person contact through fecal contamination, Hepatitis A is known to stem from contaminated food and water. The disease spreads when it enters the mouth of a person who has not had Hepatitis A before or is not immunized against Hepatitis A. Two sources prevalent in the summer that allow the virus to gain entrance into the mouth are cold foods and public pools.

1. Cold Foods - Infected food handlers may carry the virus on their hands and contaminate foods if they do not use good hand washing practices after every restroom visit and they have bare-hand contact with food. Since cold foods are not cooked, a viral particle transferred from contaminated hands to the food can survive.

Cold cuts and sandwiches, fruits and fruit juices, milk and milk products, vegetables, salads, shellfish and iced drinks are commonly implicated in Hepatitis A outbreaks. All of these foods are cold - a temperature that most of us prefer during the heat of summer. Some of the most refreshing consumables that cool us off - water, raw shellfish and salads - are the most frequent sources of Hepatitis A infection.

2. Public Pools - A favorite summertime activity, swimming carries a small risk of Hepatitis A exposure. Especially problematic when large numbers of people congregate without adequate sanitation, Hepatitis A infection can occur by swallowing pool water containing feces.

Hepatitis A is easily spread by raw sewage, thus it can become a danger in a recreational swimming environment when a person accidentally has a bowel movement in the pool or if heavy rainfall or flooding infects pool water with an overburdened sewage system. For more detailed information about Hepatitis A from a pool, read Hepatitis Transmission and Swimming Pools.

By all means, summer should be enjoyable! Luckily, exposure to contaminated food or water is not a problem if the person has Hepatitis A immunity - attainable through either previous Hepatitis A infection or receipt of the Hepatitis A vaccination. Make certain that your summer is not ruined by confirming your immunity to the Hepatitis A virus, and feel confident cooling off with a tall glass of ice tea and a fresh salad at your local pool.