What You Need to Know About Hepatitis A

On Sept. 1, 2017, the San Diego County public health officer declared a local health emergency due to a hepatitis A outbreak.

However, most people in San Diego are not at risk for contracting the hepatitis A virus. See the questions and answers below for information about how the hepatitis A virus is spread and how you can protect yourself.

What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a liver infection that most commonly acquired when a person ingests the virus from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by feces or stool from an infected person. This can also occur through direct person-to-person contact or when sharing personal or household items with an infected person. Illness associated with Hepatitis A can range in severity from a mild sickness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months. In rare cases, hepatitis A can cause liver failure or death, although this occurs more commonly in people with pre-existing liver disease.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

Symptoms of hepatitis A may include fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, dark urine, light stool and yellow eyes. Symptoms generally start two to six weeks after exposure. People are most contagious two weeks before and one week after symptoms appear. People with compromised immune systems may be infectious for a longer period of time. Many people, especially children, have no symptoms with hepatitis A infection.

UC San Diego Health Staff on the Front Lines of Outbreak

In the past five months, UC San Diego Health staff have vaccinated thousands of community members and employees. The team is also distributing information and hygiene kits to patients who need them. Read the news story.

Who is at risk for contracting hepatitis A?

Certain groups are at higher risk for contracting hepatitis A, including:

  • People who are homeless
  • People who are dependent on alcohol or illicit intravenous or non-injection drugs
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Those who have clotting factor disorders
  • People who travel to countries that have high or intermediate rates of hepatitis A
  • People who work in health care, public safety and social services, including drug rehabilitation, psychiatric, and correctional institutions
  • People who work in the plumbing, food and hospitality, or recycling and garbage industries

What is the best way to prevent hepatitis A?

The best way to prevent hepatitis A is to get the hepatitis A vaccination. You should also do the following things to help prevent the spread of hepatitis A:

  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and warm water after using the bathroom or changing a diaper, or before and after preparing food
  • Wear disposable gloves if you are performing tasks in proximity with those who are at high risk for contracting hepatitis A. Make sure that you wash your hands before putting on and after removing the gloves.

Who should get the hepatitis A vaccine?

A hepatitis A vaccination is recommended if you are in one of the high-risk groups for contracting the virus. In addition, people who have a chronic liver disease, such as cirrhosis, hepatitis B or hepatitis C, should receive the vaccination.

Can pregnant women receive the hepatitis A vaccine?

The safety of hepatitis A vaccine for pregnant women has not been determined; however, the theoretical risk to either the pregnant woman or the developing fetus is thought to be low. Because hepatitis A can be a severe disease in pregnant women, during an outbreak, pregnant women at high risk for exposure to this virus who have not either been vaccinated or had the disease previously should be vaccinated. In lower-risk individuals who believe they may have been vaccinated or had the disease, antibody testing prior to vaccination or deferring vaccination can be considered.

Can children receive the hepatitis A vaccine?

Hepatitis A was added to the recommended vaccination schedule for children in 2000. They usually receive the first dose at 12-23 months and the second dose six months later.

If I have had hepatitis A disease or vaccine in the past, how long will I be protected?

Once you recover from hepatitis A, you develop antibodies that protect you from the virus for life. Two doses of hepatitis A vaccine given six months apart also confers long-term protection.

How can I get a hepatitis A vaccination?

If you have questions about hepatitis A or receiving the vaccine, contact your primary care provider. Your health insurance plan will determine whethe the cost is covered by insurance.

Where can I get more information?

Visit San Diego County's Hepatitis A page or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.