Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which can be passed from person to person. Hepatitis C has two distinct phases: acute (or short-term) and chronic (long-term). In about one quarter of the cases, acute hepatitis C often resolves in a few months, and without major symptoms or issues. However, if the disease becomes chronic, it can lead to liver damage, liver failure, or liver cancer.

Read on to discover how the virus is transmitted and what you can do to protect yourself.

How Is Hepatitis C Commonly Transmitted?

As with many infections, the hepatitis C virus lives in blood and bodily fluids. You can contract hepatitis C by coming into direct contact with an infected person’s blood or bodily fluids.

Currently, the fastest growing population of newly infected individuals is intravenous drug users. Sharing needles, syringes, and other drug paraphernalia spreads HCV. Sharing personal hygiene products such as toothbrushes and razors with an infected person also can spread the virus. Healthcare workers who work with people who have hepatitis C can contract the virus if they’re accidentally stuck with a needle used in an infected person.

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. Women who breastfeed won’t pass the virus to their baby, but babies born to women infected with the virus are more likely to have the virus.

Is Sexual Transmission Common?

Hepatitis C can be transmitted through sexual intercourse. One study found that the virus is transmitted in one out of every 190,000 instances of sexual contact. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t contract the virus the very first time you have sexual intercourse with an infected person.

The risk for contracting HCV 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

Protect Against the Virus During Sexual Contact

A vaccine to protect against HCV currently doesn’t exist. However, there are ways that you can prevent contracting the virus if you’re sexually active with a person who has it. 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 or other barrier device 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 (That is, 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.)

Get Tested Regularly

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. Likewise, it’s important that you ask your sexual partners to be tested regularly. Regular testing helps keep you—and all future sexual partners—safe, clean, and healthy.