Hepatitis A and Restaurant Food

What to do in case of an outbreak

Restaurant food is a common source of the hepatitis A virus (HAV), a highly infectious virus that affects the liver. In fact, outbreaks of HAV infection linked to restaurants have been on the rise in recent years. At least 30 states have reported such outbreaks since 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), so it's possible you've experienced such an outbreak in your state or perhaps even your city or town.

Four friends looking at menus in restaurant
Raphye Alexius / Getty Images

Hepatitis A most often makes its way into restaurants via people who work there who are infected with the virus. Preventing the spread of the virus, therefore, requires a great deal of vigilance. Because HAV is transmitted via fecal matter, thorough hand-washing after using the bathroom and wearing gloves when handling food are key.

It's also important for diners to take measures to protect themselves from becoming ill with HAV infection. These include washing their own hands thoroughly after restroom trips and before eating and knowing what to do in the event of an outbreak at a restaurant they've recently visited. Illness usually can be prevented with immunoglobulin or the hepatitis A vaccine.

How Hepatitis A Spreads

HAV infection is a fecal-oral disease. This means the virus is transmitted to a person's digestive tract via something—often food or water—that has been contaminated with fecal matter from an infected person.

Chefs, cooks, line prep workers, and other restaurant workers with HAV infection who do not thoroughly wash their hands and put on fresh disposable gloves after using the bathroom can easily pass the virus onto food, dishes, utensils, and other surfaces touched and ingested by patrons.

The hepatitis A virus is especially infectious because it can live for up to four hours on fingers and hands.

In Case of Exposure

If you learn there has been an outbreak of hepatitis A at a restaurant you've recently visited, you will want to take steps to protect yourself and others you care for who may have been exposed from becoming ill.

Find Out the Dates of Contagion

You will only be exposed to hepatitis A if you ate at the restaurant during the time an infected food handler was contagious. These dates are calculated very conservatively based on incubation periods, which on average is 28 days, with a range of 15 to 50 days. Even if you ate at the restaurant a day or two before or after the dates of exposure, you should be fine.

Contact the Health Department—Not the Restaurant

They will have information such as the dates of exposure and official recommendations for what to do if you've been exposed.

Call Your Healthcare Provider

If you ate at a restaurant where an HAV outbreak has occurred on a date when there was a high risk of contagion, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider as soon as you can. You may need one or both of the following two preventive treatments.

  • Hepatitis A vaccine: Immunization against hepatitis A is part of the standard childhood vaccination schedule. Most children receive the full dose of HAV vaccine in two separate shots between 12 months and 23 months. The CDC recommends one dose of hepatitis A vaccine after exposure for all unvaccinated people 12 months of age and older. If you're exposed to hepatitis A and have been vaccinated, however, you don't need to get the vaccine again.
  • Hepatitis A immune globulin (IG): This treatment contains antibodies against HAV and must be taken within two weeks of exposure to the virus. It's between 80% to 98% effective, but note that the protection provided by immune globulin is temporary, lasting for around three months.

In addition to one dose of vaccine, IG should be administered to any unvaccinated exposed person 12 months of age or older who is immunocompromised or has chronic liver disease. Unvaccinated exposed persons over 40 years of age may also receive immunoglobulin in addition to vaccine depending on a healthcare provider's risk assessment. Babies under 12 months and those 12 months and older for whom the vaccine is contraindicated should receive only IG.

Know the Symptoms

Hepatitis A begins like any other viral illness, with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Although HAV infection affects the liver, jaundice (the tell-tale yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes that occurs with liver illnesses) is a relatively late symptom, so don't wait to experience this to see your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Despite the number of hepatitis A outbreaks in restaurants in recent years, most diners are at low risk of being exposed to HAV. As long as restaurants follow local health regulations, such as enforcing hand-washing rules among employees and requiring those who handle food to wear disposable gloves, there's little chance the hepatitis A virus will be a source of illness.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis A.

  2. Parrón I, Planas C, Godoy P, et al. Effectiveness of hepatitis A vaccination as post-exposure prophylaxis. Hum Vaccin Immunother. 2017 Feb;13(2):423-427. doi:10.1080/21645515.2017.1264798

  3. World Health Organization. Hepatitis A.

Additional Reading

By Charles Daniel
 Charles Daniel, MPH, CHES is an infectious disease epidemiologist, specializing in hepatitis.