Hepatitis A is an extremely contagious viral infection that mostly spreads via contaminated food, water, or intimate contact.

Though hepatitis A typically resolves on its own without any long-term damage, it may be life threatening for some individuals, including older people and those who are immunocompromised.

For that reason, it’s important to limit the virus’s spread through the vaccine and good hygiene practices. Understanding its modes of transmission and taking measures can prevent illness and save lives.

Here’s what to know.

The virus that causes hepatitis A is typically transmitted from stool (poop) to the mouth, though in rare cases, it can be transmitted through blood. Usually, it occurs via:

  • consuming food or water that’s been contaminated by the stool of a person with the virus, which can happen when:
    • a person with the virus prepared the food without washing their hands
    • the consumed produce or seafood was exposed to contaminated water (for example, eating raw fish oysters exposed to sewage water)
  • close physical contact, such as:
    • during sex (particularly involving oral-anal contact)
    • caring for a person with the infection
  • sharing injectable drugs

Hepatitis A is not an airborne virus, and therefore, you cannot get it from:

  • being coughed or sneezed on
  • exchanging hugs or handshakes
  • sitting next to someone

A baby can’t get the virus through breast milk.

Though hepatitis A cases have dropped by about 95% in the United States since the vaccine became available in the mid-1990s, there were still nearly 25,000 cases in the country in 2018.

The virus can still spread very quickly in close quarters with poor sanitization or hygiene practices, especially in areas where immunization is less common. It tends to be more common in homeless communities or places where injectable drugs are used widely.

Those who are most vulnerable to contracting the virus include:

  • international travelers
  • those who use illegal drugs
  • those who experience homelessness or rough living conditions
  • men who have sex with other men
  • those with an HIV infection
  • those living with or caring for someone with the virus
  • those caring for someone from a country where hepatitis A is common

Its spread can be limited by:

  • practicing good hygiene, including washing your hands after:
    • using the bathroom or changing diapers
    • before and after preparing food
  • taking extra precautions when traveling to countries where hep A is common, including:
    • drinking bottled or purified water
    • avoiding raw or unpeeled produce

If you test positive for hepatitis A, your doctor may recommend:

  • getting the hep A vaccine (which is recommended for those ages 1–40)
  • receiving the hep A virus-specific immunoglobin (which is recommended for infants under 12 months, those over 40, and immunocompromised people)

Though the virus often resolves on its own, these steps can minimize symptoms and help the virus from spreading to others.

Since you may remain contagious for up to 3 weeks after you initially develop symptoms, taking care to avoid passing the virus to others during this time is key.

Though hepatitis A doesn’t always manifest with symptoms and doesn’t always require treatment, your doctor may also recommend basic healthy habits to aid In recovery, including:

  • getting enough sleep
  • drinking plenty of water
  • eating a well-rounded diet
  • avoiding alcohol (due to an increased risk of liver complications)

Hepatitis A is primarily spread from stool to mouth, though it may very rarely be bloodborne. It’s typically spread through consuming contaminated food or water or via sexual contact with someone who has the infection.

Though hepatitis A is highly contagious, it typically goes away on its own without any long-term damage. It’s also highly preventable via the vaccine and good hygiene practices.

If you think you may have been exposed to hepatitis A, visit a doctor as soon as possible.