The liver is a large, hard-working organ that protects the body from toxins. It can handle all sorts of insults, but it also has its weaknesses. It doesn’t like too much alcohol, and it definitely doesn’t like viruses that cause hepatitis or inflammation of the liver.
There are five types of hepatitis viruses: hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, and F. Of these, A, B, and C are by far the most common. Fortunately, cases of hepatitis A in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world have plummeted thanks to widespread vaccinations and improved sanitation practices. In 2008, there were fewer than 25,000 new cases of hepatitis A in this country, although many of them were never reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number of children in the United States who get hepatitis A has declined, but it is a major threat in the developing world, where most people who catch the virus do so during childhood.
Unlike some other types of viral infections of the liver, hepatitis A is a short-lived illness that almost always goes away on its own without causing lasting damage. Although hepatitis A is not dangerous in most cases, you definitely want to avoid catching it. In rare instances, hepatitis A can cause liver failure and death, usually in people older than 50 or who have other liver diseases, such as hepatitis B or C.
How Do People Catch Hepatitis A?
The hepatitis A virus is just one of many disease-causing germs found in human feces. People usually catch hepatitis A by getting the virus in their mouths, often because they eat food or drink water that has been contaminated by human waste. Children who don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom can easily spread the germ to caregivers and other children. If the germ gets on your hands — perhaps while you are changing a diaper — your hands will need a good wash before you touch food or put one of your fingers in your mouth.
A person can also develop the disease if they have sex that involves oral-anal contact with someone who has hepatitis A.
People with hepatitis A are usually contagious for a couple of weeks after they start feeling sick. Once you’ve had the disease, you can’t catch it again.
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