Can I Catch Hepatitis A From Restaurant Food?

Four friends looking at menus in a restaurant
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Can you catch hepatitis A from restaurant food? What should you do if you hear of an outlook of hepatitis A at a restaurant you dined at? Can the disease be prevented if you were exposed?

Hepatitis A and Food

You can get hepatitis A from restaurant food, but it's not because the food is from a restaurant. You can be exposed to hepatitis A from food prepared anywhere (your home, a friend's home, and, yes, even a restaurant) if the person preparing the food is infected with the hepatitis A virus.

This is because hepatitis A is caused by a virus that spreads from person to person when we don't wash our hands. It's a fecal-oral disease which means that the virus enters your body through the mouth and is excreted in the feces. Infected people who don't wash their hands well after using the restroom can easily pass the virus along to whatever or whoever they touch. If they prepare or serve food, they could expose anyone that eats the food. If this is for a family of four, not too many people get exposed. However, if they prepare food for a busy restaurant, thousands of people can get exposed. When an exposure like this happens, you often hear about it on the local news.

Why Do I Need to Know if You are Exposed to Hepatitis A?

While alarming, it's a good thing when a hepatitis A outbreak makes the news because health officials want people who were exposed to look out for symptoms and, if possible, receive a dose of hepatitis A vaccine or hepatitis A immune globulin as soon as possible. Immune globulin, or IG, is a drug that provides powerful, but temporary protection for people exposed to hepatitis A. If taken early enough (within two weeks), it can completely protect against exposure. The protection is only for a few months. For longer protection, you need the hepatitis A vaccine.

Hepatitis A Immune Globulin vs. Hepatitis A Vaccine for Exposure

You may be wondering if it is best to get the hepatitis A vaccine, or instead immune globulin after an exposure. In general, those less than one year of age and those over 41 years of age should receive immune globulin, whereas those between the ages of 12 months and 40 should receive the vaccine. An exception includes those between the age of 12 months and 40 years who have reduced immune function due to cancer, an organ transplant, AIDS, or other diseases which affect the immune system, as well as those who have chronic liver disease. These people should receive immune globulin instead of the vaccine no matter their age.

Should I Worry About Eating at a Restaurant?

Not really. If restaurant employees follow proper hygiene standards and follow local health regulations, you're at very little risk of being exposed to hepatitis A through restaurant food. Many restaurants train their employees to wash their hands after using the toilet and, in some places, employees must wear disposable gloves when working with food. Due to restaurant regulations, you may actually be safer eating in a restaurant than at home.

How Do I Prevent Hepatitis A?

You can prevent hepatitis A through immunization. There are safe and effective hepatitis vaccines available in the United States for anyone older than 12 months of age. These vaccines are inactivated vaccines (which means they don't use live viruses) and provide about 25 years of protection if you take the full vaccine dose, which are two shots in the arm (or the thigh for young children). Another vaccine, Twinrix, offers protection for both hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

Children are now routinely vaccinated between the ages of 12 and 23 months. The CDC currently recommends vaccination for those who:

  • Are traveling to countries where hepatitis A is common
  • Are a man who has sex with other men
  • Use illegal drugs
  • Have a chronic liver disease such as hepatitis B or hepatitis C
  • Are being treated with clotting factor concentrates
  • Work with hepatitis A infected animals or in a hepatitis research lab
  • Will be having close personal contact with an international adoptee from a country where hepatitis A is common.

You should not get the hepatitis A vaccine if you have any severe, life-threatening allergies or if you are not feeling well.

What Happens If I Am Exposed to Hepatitis A?

Despite our best efforts at prevention, sometimes we are exposed to hepatitis A. If this happens at a restaurant, you will probably learn about this through your local news source. You need to follow these simple steps:

  • Find out the dates of exposure. You will only be exposed to hepatitis A if you ate at the restaurant during the time an infected food handler was contagious. The health department will know this time period and will only be concerned about people who ate at the restaurant during this period. These dates are calculated very conservatively based on incubation periods, so even if you ate at the restaurant one or two days before or after the dates of exposure, you're fine. The average incubation period for hepatitis A is 28 days, with a range of 15 to 50 days.
  • Contact the health department, not the restaurant. In most cases, the local public health department is the best source for more information. They will have the dates of exposure and the official recommendations for what you should do. Some health departments have access to hepatitis A vaccine or immune globulin. Most, however, will probably recommend you to see your doctor.
  • Contact your physician or provider. If the health department advises you to follow up with a physician, make your appointment as soon as you can. Make sure you're prepared to explain why you're calling and what the public health recommendations are to your doctor. If you need the vaccine or immune globulin, your doctor will probably need to order it from another company because most physicians don't keep them in stock.
  • Monitor your symptoms. Hepatitis A begins like any other viral hepatitis. Many people might recognize jaundice as a hepatitis symptom, but it's a relatively late symptom and many people won't show jaundice at all.
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