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
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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 and knowing what to do in the event of an outbreak at a restaurant they've recently visited. Illness usually can be prevented with medication or the hepatitis A vaccine.

How Hepatitis A Spreads

HAV infection is a fecal-oral disease. This means the virus is transmitted 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 and for several days in water.

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 Doctor

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 physician as soon as you can. You may need one of two preventive treatments:

  • Hepatitis A immune globulin (IG): This drug contains antibodies against HAV as long as it is taken within two weeks of exposure to the virus. It's around 85% effective, but note that the protection provided by immune globulin is temporary, lasting for around three months.
  • 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 month and 23 months, which will provide around 25 years of protection.

In general, babies under 1 and adults over 41 should receive IG, as well as those with lowered immune function due to cancer, an organ transplant, any disease that affects the immune system, such as HIV-AIDS, life-threatening allergies, or who are currently suffering with a cold or flu. People between 12 months and 40 years should receive the vaccine.

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 doctor.

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.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis A. Updated September 10, 2019.

  2. World Health Organization. Hepatitis A. July 9, 2019.

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