Can I Catch Hepatitis A from Restaurant Food?

To protect against spreading hepatitis A, all food handlers should wash their hands correctly. Hernan Herrero/stock.xchng

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 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.

More About Hepatitis Virus and Infection

Why Do I Need to Know?

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 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.

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 for 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.

How Do I Prevent Hepatitis A?

You can prevent hepatitis A through immunization. There are two safe and effective hepatitis vaccines available in the United States for anyone older than 12 months of age: Havrix and Vaqta. Both 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.

Who's At Risk for Hepatitis A?

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.
  • 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 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. Look for the beginning symptoms, which are in the Big List of Viral Hepatitis Symptoms.

    More About Symptoms of Viral Hepatitis

Sources:

Dienstag, JL. Acute Viral Hepatitis. In: AS Fauci, E Braunwald, DL Kasper, SL Hauser, DL Longo, JL Jameson, J Loscaizo (eds), Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 17e. New York, McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Pickering, LK (ed), The Red Book: Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases, 26th e. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2003. 311-313.

Sjogren, MH. Hepatitis A. In: M Feldman, LS Friedman, LJ Brandt (eds), Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, 8e. Philadelphia, Elsevier, 2006. 1639.

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