While hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, all cause liver inflammation, they are different diseases caused by different viruses. The latter two may be sexually transmitted, but hepatitis A is typically not considered an STD. For this reason, people often wonder if hepatitis A is sexually transmitted at all. And if not, how is it passed from one person to another? All great questions, but to answer them, we’ll need to start with the basics.
What Is Hepatitis A?
The term “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis can be caused by many things, including heavy alcohol use, certain medications or health problems, toxins, or viruses, including hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and the far less common hepatitis D and E. While hepatitis B and C can cause chronic infections, hepatitis A typically causes a short-term infection and symptoms usually subside within 8 weeks (severe cases can last up to 6 months and can rarely lead to death). Symptoms can include general discomfort, fever, diarrhea, nausea, dark urine, and/or jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), although not everyone has symptoms. Fortunately there is a vaccine, and doctors in the United States recommend that all children receive the vaccine at their first birthday (others at an elevated risk of contracting the virus should also be vaccinated…but more on that later).
How Is Hepatitis A Transmitted?
Hepatitis A is spread when a person accidentally ingests traces of fecal matter from an infected individual. This can happen by eating food prepared by an infected person who hasn’t washed their hands properly, by drinking water from a contaminated source, or by eating undercooked food. The best way to spread the infection is to wash your hands before preparing or eating food and after going to the bathroom or changing diapers.
Like hepatitis B and hepatitis C, hepatitis A can be passed through sexual activity (especially anal sex) and needle sharing, although this isn’t common in the United States.
Who is at Risk?
While anyone who has not been vaccinated is, in theory, at risk of contracting hepatitis A, the World Health Organization (WHO) cites the following groups at being of the highest risk:
- People who live in an area without safe water
- People who live with someone already infected
- Sexual partners of infected individuals
- Recreational drug users
- Men who have sex with men
- People who are planning travel to areas with high infection rates
How Many People Are Affected?
The WHO estimated that more than 1.4 million people worldwide contract hepatitis A every year, many of them residing in regions in which clean water is not readily accessible. In the United States, 3,366 cases of hepatitis A were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2017 (although the actual number of cases was likely double that).
How Can Hepatitis A Be Treated?
There is no cure for hepatitis A. Your best bet is to prevent contracting the virus in the first place with proper hand hygiene. Vaccination is recommended for all children at age one and for other people at high risk of contracting the virus, including men who have sex with men and people who use illicit drugs. Other people who should be vaccinated include people traveling to or adopting children from areas of the world with high rates of hepatitis A, people who may be exposed to hepatitis A at work, people with liver disease, and people who receive certain blood products. If you’ve been exposed to the virus and are not vaccinated, your doctor may recommend an injection known as postexposure prophylaxis (PEP), which can prevent the virus from affecting you if you take it within two weeks of exposure. If you think you have hepatitis A or were exposed to it, seek medical attention and follow the advice of your physician. Most people recover without any specific treatment. Once symptoms subside, you are immune from contracting it in the future.