Traveler’s guide to hepatitis A

The information below is provided by Mary Ruth Hunt, MD, director of Moses Cone Occupational Health Services in Greensboro, NC, to patients planning to travel to countries where hepatitis A may be contracted:

• Hepatitis A
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious viral infection of the liver. Infection is very common in developing countries and is often transmitted by contaminated food and water. As many as 134,000 people in the United States are infected with hepatitis A each year. This includes infections acquired by travelers as well as community outbreaks. Hepatitis A is the most common disease among travelers that can be prevented with vaccination.

• What are the symptoms?
Nausea, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes) fatigue, poor appetite, abdominal pain, vomiting, and fever are the usual symptoms. The severity can vary. Adults are more likely to have severe symptoms, while children may have mild or no symptoms. However, people with few or no symptoms can still infect family and others.

• How do you get it?
Hepatitis A is spread from person to person through fecal contamination and then hand-to-mouth contact. This can happen by someone simply forgetting to wash his/her hands after changing a diaper or using the bathroom and then preparing food.

• How soon do you feel sick?
The average time from exposure to symptoms is 28 days. During this time you can unknowingly spread the disease to others.

• How long to symptoms last and is there any treatment?
Symptoms usually last about a month, but could last as long as six months. Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment. Antibiotics do not work on viral illnesses. Symptom relief is the mainstay of treatment.

• How can I protect myself?
Safe food and water consumption is very important in avoiding hepatitis A as well as many other food-borne illnesses. Additionally, vaccination is very effective. People who have had hepatitis A already have immunity and do not require vaccination.

• How soon am I protected after vaccination and do In need a booster?
Most patients achieve immunity by day 15. A second booster shot is needed six to 12 months after the first shot. The booster shot prolongs protection for at least 20 years, possibly lifelong.

• What are the side effects?
Most common adverse reactions are soreness at the injection site and occasional headache. No serious adverse events have been attributed to the vaccine.