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Hepatitis A: What it is, how you contract it, symptoms, and what to do if you’ve been exposed

Camden County health officials say customers of a local Starbucks may have been exposed to hepatitis A. Here's what the disease is, its symptoms, and what you should do if you think you're at risk.

Camden County health officials say customers of a local Starbucks may have been exposed to hepatitis A. Here's what the disease is, it's symptoms, and what you should do if you think you're at risk.
Camden County health officials say customers of a local Starbucks may have been exposed to hepatitis A. Here's what the disease is, it's symptoms, and what you should do if you think you're at risk.Read moreiStockphoto

A Camden County Starbucks worker tested positive for hepatitis A, and local health officials say that you should get vaccinated if you visited the location recently.

The employee, who has not been identified, handled food at the Starbucks location at 1490 Blackwood Clementon Road in Gloucester Township, Camden County officials said in a release Thursday.

The local health department’s Food Surveillance Unit inspected and found no evidence of food violations. The store was closed until all employees were vaccinated against hepatitis A.

But officials recommend that you get the hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin injections if you visited the location on Nov. 4, 5, 6, 11, 12, or 13. You can do so by contacting the county health department or your primary care physician. The county health department has also set up a vaccine clinic at the Camden County Sustainable Facility (508 Lakeland Rd., Blackwood) that will run 9-11:30 a.m. on Saturday.

“The county health department has been working closely with the patient and the staff at the Starbucks to address the situation,” said Camden County Health Officer Paschal Nwako. “Our highest priority is ensuring everyone involved remains safe and healthy.”

But what is hepatitis A, and how can you contract it? Here is what you need to know:

» READ MORE: Philly’s HIV, hepatitis, and nonfatal overdose counts may be artificially low because of COVID-19 shutdowns.

What is hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is a viral infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus. There are five hepatitis viruses (A, B, C, D, and E); hepatitis A causes about 20% to 25% of hepatitis cases in developed countries, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Hepatitis A is highly contagious and causes liver inflammation that can result in mild to severe illness, according to the World Health Organization.

Most people who get hepatitis A recover from the infection in several weeks or months without long-term liver damage — though in rare cases (such as in older people or in people with serious preexisting conditions like chronic liver disease) the infection can cause liver failure and death, according to the CDC.

CDC data indicate that since 2016, there have been nearly 43,000 reported cases of hepatitis A in 37 states resulting in 21,141 hospitalizations and 402 deaths. New Jersey began investigating a hepatitis A outbreak in the state in December 2018, and reported 623 related cases as of Feb. 2020, according to data from the state’s Department of Health. Philadelphia went through a hepatitis A outbreak in 2019 that caused 426 cases for the year and saw health officials declare a public health emergency.

How do you get exposed to hepatitis A?

The hepatitis A virus is found in the stool and blood of people infected with the disease, and it can spread when someone ingests particles of the virus, the CDC says.

In general, that can happen through person-to-person contact such as:

  1. Some types of sexual contact (such as anal-oral contact)

  2. Caring for a person infected with hepatitis A

  3. Using illegal drugs with people infected with hepatitis A

Additionally, infection can spread by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated fluids — such as when someone who has the virus handles food after using the bathroom and not washing their hands, or eating raw shellfish that has been in water polluted by sewage, the Mayo Clinic says.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia officials declare health emergency over hepatitis A outbreak.

Vaccination against hepatitis A can prevent infection, and if you have already had hepatitis A and recovered, you have a lifelong immunity against it, the WHO says. But you can help prevent spreading the virus with good hand hygiene practices, such as washing your hands after using the bathroom or changing diapers, and before eating or preparing food.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis A?

Symptoms of hepatitis A typically appear two to four weeks after infection but can sometimes show up after two to seven weeks, Camden County health officials said in a release. Not all people who get hepatitis A show symptoms of the infection, and adults are more likely to have them compared with children, according to the CDC.

Infected people can reportedly transmit hepatitis A up to two weeks before symptoms appear, depending on the phase of the disease, Johns Hopkins Medicine says. Symptoms can present in a number of ways, including:

  1. Fever

  2. Joint pain or arthritis

  3. Rashes or irritated skin lesions

  4. Swelling (known as edema)

  5. Fatigue

  6. Muscle pain (known as myalgia)

  7. Anorexia, nausea, or vomiting

  8. Abdominal pain

  9. Diarrhea

  10. Dark urine and light-colored stools

  11. Cough

  12. Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (known as jaundice)

In general, anyone who is not vaccinated against or previously infected with hepatitis A can be infected by the virus, the WHO says. But, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, common risk factors for infection include:

  1. Use of injected or non-injected drugs

  2. Intercourse with an infected person

  3. Direct contact with people infected with hepatitis A

  4. Experiencing homelessness

  5. Traveling to counties where infections are more common

How is hepatitis A treated?

Doctors can determine whether you have hepatitis A by discussing your symptoms with you and ordering a blood test that detects hepatitis A antibodies.

However, the WHO says, there is no “specific treatment” for the disease, and people typically recover in several weeks or months.

If you do have hepatitis A, the CDC says that doctors will likely recommend rest, along with eating plenty of nutrients and drinking lots of fluids. If you have severe symptoms, you may need to be hospitalized for additional medical care, but hospitalization is “unnecessary in the absence of acute liver failure,” according to the WHO.

» READ MORE: Philly officials announce sharp drop in Hepatitis A cases after declaring health emergency.

Should you get tested or vaccinated against hepatitis A?

In general, if you are showing symptoms of a hepatitis A infection, or you believe you may have been exposed to the disease, you should consult your physician to determine the next steps. A single shot of the hepatitis A vaccine can help prevent contracting the disease if you receive it within 14 days of exposure, the CDC says.

Vaccination against hepatitis A is considered a highly effective preventative measure against infection, and is typically given in two shots six months apart, according to the Mayo Clinic. The hepatitis A vaccine is also considered safe for most people, but certain groups — such as people who have had life-threatening allergic reactions to the vaccine, those who are allergic to its components, or infants younger than 12 months — should not receive it.

If you are unable to receive the hepatitis A vaccine due to health risks, you may be able to receive immune globulin injections. That substance is made from human blood plasma that has hepatitis A antibodies and also helps prevent infection — though, the CDC notes, its preventative effects are not considered long-term.

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