Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The disease can be passed from person to person. Hepatitis C has two distinct phases: acute (or short-term) and chronic (long-term). According to the New York State Department of Health, about one-quarter of the cases of acute hepatitis C often resolve in a few months without major symptoms or issues. If the disease becomes chronic, however, it can lead to liver damage, liver failure, or liver cancer.
As with many infections, HCV lives in blood and bodily fluids. You can contract hepatitis C by coming into direct contact with an infected person’s blood. It can also be transmitted by contact with bodily fluids including saliva or semen of an infected person, but this is rare.
Some of the ways hepatitis C is transmitted include:
- sharing needles among intravenous (IV) drug users, such as those who abuse heroin
- from mother to baby during childbirth
- being stuck with a needle that was used on an infected person
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sharing needles is the most common way somebody contracts hepatitis C. Less common ways include using personal hygiene products from an infected person, like razors and toothbrushes.
Although rare, hepatitis C can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse. According to a study, the virus is transmitted in 1 out of every 190,000 instances of sexual contact. For people at a higher risk of contracting the HIV virus, testing is available at STD treatment facilities.
The virus can’t be transmitted by sharing a cup or eating utensils with an infected person. Hugging, holding hands, and kissing also won’t spread it. You can’t catch the virus from someone with hepatitis C sneezing or coughing on you.
Breastfeeding doesn’t transmit the virus to a baby, but babies born to women infected with the virus are more likely to have the virus. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, if a mother is infected with hepatitis C, there is a 1 in 25 chance she will pass the virus to her baby. If a father has hepatitis C, but the mother isn’t infected, he will not transmit the virus to the baby. It’s possible that a father could transmit the virus to the mother, which could infect the baby. Whether the baby is delivered vaginally or via cesarean delivery doesn’t affect the risk for getting the virus.
According to the New York State Department of Health, those at greatest risk for contracting hepatitis C include:
- anyone who has ever injected illicit drugs
- those who have had a blood transfusion, blood products, or an organ transplant before June 1992 (prior to this time, blood tests weren’t as sensitive to HCV)
- those who received clotting factors before 1987
The risk for contracting hepatitis C through sexual contact increases for people who:
- have multiple sexual partners
- have another sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- are HIV-positive
- engage in rough sexual intercourse
- don’t use barrier protection, such as condoms or dental dams
- don’t use barrier protection properly
Hepatitis C has been detected in semen, but the greater risk is transmission through infected blood. This could occur from open wounds, cuts, or other breaks in the skin. Skin-to-skin contact during sex can also transmit blood from one person to another.
Unfortunately, HIV and hepatitis C coinfection can be common. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of IV drug users with HIV also have hepatitis C. This is because both conditions have similar risk factors, including needle sharing and unprotected sex.
A vaccine to protect against HCV doesn’t currently exist. But there are ways to prevent infection. Refrain from engaging in IV drug use and sharing needles. Also, be cautious with all procedures that involve needles. For example, you should not share needles used for tattooing, piercing, or acupuncture. The equipment should always be carefully sterilized for safety. If you’re undergoing any of these procedures in another country, always make sure the equipment is sterilized.
Sterile equipment should also be used in a medical and/or dental setting. You can ask your doctor to follow proper procedures when needles and instruments are used.
If you’re sexually active with a person who has hepatitis C, there are ways that you can prevent contracting the virus. Likewise, if you have the virus, you can avoid infecting others.
A few steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of transmission include:
- using a condom during every sexual contact, including oral sex
- learning to use all barrier devices correctly in order to prevent ripping or tearing during intercourse
- resisting engaging in sexual contact when either partner has an open cut or wound in their genitals
- being tested for STIs and asking sexual partners to be tested too
- practicing sexual monogamy
- being honest with all sexual partners (you should be open about your status with your partners if you have hepatitis C)
- using extra precautions if you’re HIV-positive (your chance of contracting the hepatitis C virus is much higher if you have HIV)
Hepatitis C antibody test, also known as the anti-HCV test, is a test that measures a person’s blood to see if they have ever had the virus. If a person has had the hepatitis C virus, the body will make antibodies to fight against the virus. The anti-HCV test looks for these antibodies. If a person tests positive for antibodies, doctors usually recommend more tests to see if a person has active hepatitis C. The test is called an RNA or PCR test.
You should visit your doctor regularly to have an STI screening if you’re sexually active and not in a monogamous relationship. Some viruses and infections, including hepatitis C, may not cause symptoms for several weeks after exposure. In the time it takes for the virus to be symptomatic, you may spread it to a sexual partner without knowing it.
According to the CDC, 3.2 million people in the United States have hepatitis C. A large portion of them don’t know it because they don’t experience symptoms. During this time, they can pass the virus onto their partners. And although sexual contact isn’t the most common way a person gets hepatitis C, it can happen. So it’s important that you ask your sexual partners to be tested regularly and to practice safe sex by properly using protection, such as condoms. Regular testing and practicing safe sex will help keep you and your sexual partners safe and healthy.