In The News – What’s Hepatitis A and How to Avoid It

As reported by The Huffington Post this week, a McDonald’s food handler at a Milan, Illinois, restaurant was carrying the hepatitis A virus, and allegedly exposed up to 10,000 people to the virus. What does this mean for the infected people who ate at the restaurant, and how can you avoid being infected yourself?

Danger level: Low

What is it?

Hepatitis A is a type of virus which can infect your liver.

Who gets it?

The hepatitis A virus is found in the stool of an infected person. When someone eats food or drinks beverages that came in contact with the infected stool, they can get infected themselves. How can the foods come in contact with the stool? If, for example, a restaurant employee is infected and doesn’t wash his or her hands well after visiting the bathroom. When that employee goes on to prepare food, anyone eating that food is in danger of getting infected themselves.

Eating raw oysters or undercooked clams may also raise your risk of infection, if these shellfish came from water polluted with sewage.

The disease can also be transferred if you come in close contact with an infected person. This includes having sex with the person or sharing needles with them.

What causes it?

As mentioned above, the hepatitis a virus causes the disease.


A group of hepatitis A viruses, as seen under a microscope.

This virus attacks our liver. Our liver is responsible for many functions in our body, including processing nutrients absorbed in the intestines, removing drugs and alcohol from the blood, and manufacturing bile (which helps us digest fats).

How does it feel?

The symptoms don’t come right after the infection. Rather, the virus starts replicating in the body, and only after 2-7 weeks do you start feeling its presence. The symptoms usually last for about 2 months, and can include:

  1. Feeling tired
  2. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or appetite loss
  3. Losing weight
  4. Abdominal pain (usually located in the right upper abdomen, where the liver is)
  5. Fever
  6. Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or of the whites of the eyes) and a dark urine
  7. Itching
  8. Muscle pain

How is it discovered?

Blood tests can discover if you have been infected with the virus recently.

How is it treated?

Usually the infection goes away on its own, and you get well within a few months. People with hepatitis A usually need rest, and also need to eat well, while avoiding alcohol and fatty foods.

What happens after treatment?

There is more than one type of hepatitis virus. This article deals with hepatitis A, but there are also B, C, D, and E viruses. Unlike the other hepatitis viruses, hepatitis A usually goes away after you recover from the disease, while most of the others may stay for good in your body.

The bottom line – How do I avoid it?

  1. Follow safety precautions for international travelers – While the McDonald’s case this week shows that no place is absolutely safe, hepatitis A is more common in developing countries, where sanitation isn’t advanced. You can see which areas are high risk in the map below. When traveling to such areas, it’s recommended that you peel and wash all your fresh fruits and vegetables yourself and avoid raw or undercooked meat and fish. Drink bottled water (or boil tap water for at least 10 minutes if no bottled water is available) and avoid ice cubes in beverages.  This also applies to the water you use for tooth brushing.hepatitis-a-prevalence
    You should be careful when visiting countries marked in red or orange. Map by PhilippN.
  2. Get vaccinated – There is a vaccination against hepatitis A. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s recommended for the following people:
    a. All children at age 1 year
    b. Travelers to countries that have high rates of hepatitis A
    c. Men who have sexual contact with other men
    d. Users of injection and non-injection illegal drugs
    e. People with chronic (lifelong) liver diseases, such as hepatitis B or hepatitis C
    f. People who are treated with clotting-factor concentrates
    g. People who work with hepatitis A infected animals or in a hepatitis A research laboratory

On a final note, the McDonald’s case  wasn’t the first one, and probably will not be the last. The following video shows the scare following a similar case at a P.F. Changs restaurant in West Chester, back in April 2008: