Hepatitis A is a viral infection that affects the liver. It’s usually spread by contaminated food and water. According to a 2015 report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hepatitis A affected an estimated 2,800 people in the United States. (1)
Although hepatitis A is not usually life-threatening, unlike hepatitis B or hepatitis C, the hepatitis A virus can make you feel sick for weeks or even months, and infected people over the age of 50 are at an increased risk of developing liver disease or liver failure as a result of the virus.
Hepatitis A is usually spread by an infected food handler or an infected food source. With proper hygiene and sanitation, the spread of the virus can be prevented. If you do contract hepatitis A, there are natural ways to relieve symptoms and boost your immune system so that your body can recover quickly.
What Is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. It is not as severe as hepatitis B and C because it only appears as an acute infection and doesn’t cause chronic liver disease. And unlike hepatitis B and C, hepatitis A is rarely fatal; however, the virus can cause debilitating symptoms and even acute liver failure.
The hepatitis A virus is one of the major causes of food-related infection and illness. Once the virus contaminates food or water, it can spread quickly and cause an epidemic. An example of a major hepatitis A outbreak is the 1998 epidemic in Shanghai, China. Over 300,000 people contracted hepatitis A after eating raw clams contaminated with the virus that came from heavily polluted coastal waters. The outbreak lead to both economic and social consequences. Restaurants lost business, hospitals were packed with patients, and the infected didn’t recover for weeks and were unable to work. Plus people feared contact with the people of Shanghai for fear of transmission. (2)
Researchers believe that poor sanitation and cooking methods that don’t kill the virus caused the contamination in Shanghai — and other cities that have suffered from hepatitis A outbreaks. Eating raw shellfish, for example, doesn’t involve a boiling process that would kill the virus. And when raw sewage is dumped into local rivers and harbors, which is common practice in places like Shanghai, there’s a much higher risk of contamination. (3)
Signs & Symptoms of Hepatitis A
Hepatitis A symptoms range from mild to severe. Some infected people don’t experience any noticeable symptoms, especially children under the age of six. The symptoms usually appear anywhere from two to six weeks after exposure to the virus. For some, the infection will last for a few weeks, but for others, the symptoms continue for months.
The most common symptoms of hepatitis A include (4):
- loss of appetite
- abdominal pain
- muscle soreness
- joint pain
- light-colored stool
- dark-colored urine
In older children and adults, jaundice occurs in more than 70 percent of cases. Jaundice causes a yellow discoloration to the skin and eyes. It can also darken your urine and lighten the color of your stool. This occurs in hepatitis A patients because their livers cannot metabolize red blood cells that are breaking down, which causes a buildup of bilirubin.
Causes & Risk Factors
Hepatitis A primarily spreads when an uninfected person ingests food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person. There are a few ways that this can happen:
- If an infected person has dirty hands and prepares food for his or her family, friends or patrons
- When a parent or caregiver changes a diaper or cleans stool of an infected person and then doesn’t wash his or her hands afterward
The virus can also spread through sexual contact and contaminated food or water. A waterborne outbreak is usually associated with sewage contamination or water that isn’t treated properly. This is typically avoided in the United States because water chlorination kills the virus if it enters the water supply. (5)
Food and water contamination is more common in areas where there are poor sanitary conditions or poor personal hygiene. According to the CDC, the foods and drinks more likely to be contaminated with hepatitis A include shellfish, fruits, vegetables, ice and water. Foods can become contaminated with hepatitis A at many points, including growing, harvesting, processing, handling and cooking. (6)
The following circumstances or scenarios can lead to hepatitis A contamination (7):
- not having access to safe, clean drinking water
- living in areas of poor sanitation and improper disposal of sewage
- living with or taking care of an infected person
- use of recreational drugs
- engaging in sexual activity with an infected person
- traveling to areas of high hepatitis A prevalence (without being immunized)
Interestingly, developing countries with poor hygiene and sanitary conditions rarely have hepatitis A outbreaks, even though these areas have high levels of infection. This is because in these areas 90 percent of children are infected with hepatitis A before they reach 10 years old. At that age, the children don’t develop any noticeable symptoms. They then become immune to the virus. So if they come into contact with it later in life, they will not be infected.
Areas with intermediate levels of hepatitis A, on the other hand, are at a greater risk of developing outbreaks. In countries where sanitary conditions are improving, but vary from city to city, children often escape infection in their younger years. But they may then be infected with the virus in adulthood and then they aren’t immune to it. This is how large outbreaks and higher disease rates occur within a community. (8)
There is no specific cure or treatment for hepatitis A. Typically, the symptoms will go away after a few weeks or even months.
Conventional treatment includes the hepatitis A vaccine, which is available for children and adults who are at risk of contracting the virus, or as a way to control a community-wide outbreak of hepatitis A. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the hepatitis A vaccine “can be given as part of regular childhood immunization programs and also with other vaccines for travelers.” (9)
The WHO also indicates that whether or not to vaccinate your child should depend on his or her level of exposure to the virus. High-risk adults include those who use recreational drugs, are sexually involved with an infected person or plan on traveling to a high-risk area. People with chronic liver disease are also at increased risk of serious complications if they acquire hepatitis A.
For someone already exposed to the virus, the CDC recommends an injection of either immune globulin or hepatitis A vaccine. But this form of treatment must be given within the first two weeks after exposure to the virus in order to be effective. Immune globulin is made from human blood plasma. It contains antibodies that can protect you from the infection. Keep in mind that it only works for a short period of time — approximately three months. (10)
6 Natural Ways to Prevent & Help Treat Hepatitis A
Luckily, there are a few natural ways to prevent, and also help treat, hepatitis A. These options range from dietary choices to stress management to strategies to help avoid contracting the disease in the first place.
1. Eat a Healthy, Well-Balanced Diet
The term hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. One of the most important actions to take to help treat the symptoms of hepatitis A is sticking to a clean, well-balanced and anti-inflammatory diet. Eating anti-inflammatory foods can help to regulate your immune system and allow your body to heal quickly. These foods are also rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats that are vital for your body’s recovery. (11)
Here’s a breakdown of the foods that you should be consuming on a daily basis, especially as your body is recovering from an infection like hepatitis A:
- green leafy vegetables, including kale, spinach and Swiss chard
- fresh vegetables, like broccoli, cabbage, celery and beets
- root vegetables, like sweet potatoes and carrots
- fresh fruit, especially blueberries, pineapple and citrus fruits
- organic meat and wild fish
- nuts and seeds, especially walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds and flaxseeds
- anti-inflammatory spices, like turmeric, cayenne and ginger
- healthy fats, especially avocados, ghee, coconut oil and olive oil
- nutrient-dense bone broth
- probiotic-rich yogurt and kefir
- gluten-free grains like quinoa, brown rice, oats and millet
While fighting off hepatitis A symptoms, and even after recovering, stay away from sugary foods, processed and packaged foods, and foods containing refined carbohydrates. These choices will only lead to inflammation and can debilitate your immune system.
2. Stay Hydrated
To treat hepatitis A symptoms, you must stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and other hydrating fluids throughout the day. This is especially important if you are experiencing diarrhea and vomiting, which means that you are losing fluids quickly.
How much water you need to drink varies depending on your weight, urine output and the climate. But as a general rule, you want to get about 60–80 ounces of water per day. If you are losing fluids because you are dealing with hepatitis A symptoms, then carry around a 20-ounce bottle of water and aim to drink four of those every day. Eating hydrating fruits and vegetables will also be helpful. These foods include watermelon, kiwi, berries, spinach and cucumber.
3. Get Plenty of Rest and Reduce Stress
To allow your body to fight the hepatitis A virus, you need to make sure you’re getting plenty of rest — around eight hours every night — and you reduce stress levels. In fact, research shows that sleep has a strong influence on immune functions. If you are feeling weak and fatigued, don’t push yourself. Allow your body to rest as you recover from the virus. (12)
Having trouble sleeping? Try some natural sleep aids like eating foods that contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps to get your brain into a relaxed state. You can also use lavender essential oil to promote restfulness and relaxation. Just diffuse 5–10 drops of lavender or apply 2–3 drops to your temples and wrists before bed.
4. Try Peppermint Oil
Peppermint oil can be used to boost your energy levels and get rid of nausea, one of the most common symptoms of hepatitis A. Peppermint oil is commonly used to reduce postoperative nausea and nausea during pregnancy. People who are feeling ill due to bacterial or viral infections, like hepatitis A, can also use it. Peppermint has antiemetic and antispasmodic effects on the gastric lining and colon, reducing nausea and vomiting without any side effects. (13)
To use peppermint oil to relieve the symptoms of hepatitis A, simply rub 1–2 drops into the back of your neck and bottoms of your feet. You can also add 5–10 drops of peppermint to cool or warm bath water. Or add 2–3 drops to a cool compress and place it on your head.
5. Drink Ginger Tea
You can use ginger to boost your immune system, cleanse the lymphatic system and help the body to get rid of toxins and waste. Both ginger root and ginger essential oil can treat a wide range of health problems because of its anti-inflammatory and immunonutrition responses.
Use ginger to relieve nausea and upset stomach, two common symptoms of hepatitis A. Some other ginger health benefits include its ability to promote regular digestion and the metabolism of food, helping your body to absorb the nutrients that it needs to heal. And it can relieve pain, reduce inflammation and treat infections. (14)
One of the easiest ways to use ginger is by drinking ginger tea 2–3 times daily. You can buy ginger teabags, add 3–4 drops of ginger essential oil to warm water, or make your own ginger tea by boiling ginger root for 10 minutes.
6. Avoid Catching and Spreading the Virus
One of the leading causes of hepatitis A contamination is poor hygiene and sanitation. Keeping up with basic personal hygiene can reduce the spread of hepatitis A. Make sure to wash your hands with soap and water regularly, especially after using the bathroom, changing a diaper or before prepping and eating food. (15)
To avoid catching the hepatitis A virus, stay away from undercooked or raw shellfish, especially in areas where the sanitation is “fishy.” And if you are traveling to an area that has a history of hepatitis A outbreaks, avoid drinking the tap water and use bottled water instead.
If you have hepatitis A, make sure to speak to your health care provider about the medications, supplements and over-the-counter drugs that you should avoid. Some of these pills or products can cause liver damage. This is something you definitely want to avoid when your body is fighting hepatitis A. It’s also very important to avoid drinking alcohol, which can also damage your liver and make the healing process more difficult.
Final Thoughts on Hepatitis A
- The hepatitis A virus is one of the major causes of food-related infection and illness.
- Hepatitis A symptoms range from mild to severe. Some infected people don’t experience any noticeable symptoms, especially children under the age of six. For those who experience symptoms, they may include fever, fatigue, joint pain, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and jaundice.
- Hepatitis A is primarily spread when an uninfected person ingests food or water that is contaminated with the feces of an infected person. It can also spread by sexual contact and contaminated food and water.
- It’s important to practice basic personal hygiene, including washing one’s hands with soap and water after using the toilet, to help avoid spreading the virus.
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked shellfish.
- A hepatitis A vaccine is available as a conventional treatment option for children and adults who are at risk of contracting the virus, or as a way to control a community-wide outbreak of hepatitis A.
- To relieve hepatitis A symptoms, make sure to eat plenty of nutrient-rich foods, get plenty of rest, stay hydrated and reduce stress. You can use essential oils like peppermint and lavender to help ease symptoms and promote relaxation. You can also drink ginger tea to boost your immune system.
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