vial of blood

A hepatitis C infection can lead to serious liver damage, so it’s important to know all of the ways it can be transmitted. Still, figuring out how the virus is transmitted can be tricky. More than 40 percent of all hepatitis C cases cannot identify the source of infection.

Keep reading to find out all the ways hepatitis C can be transmitted and what increases your risk.

Transmission via Blood

The most common way to get hepatitis C is through exposure to infected blood. This can happen if the blood of someone who has hepatitis C enters your own bloodstream.

This might happen if you:

  • use a needle or syringe to inject drugs into your body that someone with hepatitis C has already used
  • are injured by a needle stick in a lab or other healthcare setting, if that needle has come into contact with blood infected by hepatitis C
  • share razors, toothbrushes, or other personal hygiene items that may have touched an infected person’s blood

Sexual Transmission

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you can also get hepatitis C from sexual contact. But certain sexual behaviors are riskier than others when it comes to increasing your chances of becoming infected.

You increase your risk of getting hepatitis C if you:

  • have more than one sexual partner
  • have a sexually transmitted disease
  • have HIV
  • engage in sex that’s rough or could cause bleeding

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) advises condom use during sex to help prevent the spread of infection.

Tattooing or Piercing

The CDC notes that infectious diseases like hepatitis C can be transmitted through unregulated settings that provide tattooing, body piercing, or body art.

Commercially licensed tattooing businesses are generally thought to be safe. However, more informal settings that offer tattooing or piercing services may not have adequate safeguards to help avoid the spread of infections.

Precautions at Home

If your skin is directly exposed to the blood of someone who has hepatitis C, you may contract the virus. This situation is rare, but it’s still important to take some precautions at home:

  • Clean any blood spills thoroughly. Blood on a surface can still be infectious, including dried blood.
  • Wear rubber gloves when cleaning blood. Use one part household bleach to 10 parts water.

The Genetic Connection

Did your mother have hepatitis C when you were born? If so, you have a higher risk for getting the virus and you should be tested for it.

The infection often has no visible symptoms for many years. A blood test is one of the only ways to confirm a diagnosis.

How Hepatitis C Is Not Spread

It’s as important to know how hepatitis C can’t be transmitted as it is to know how you may get the virus. The CDC confirms that you can’t get hepatitis C through:

  • eating with utensils shared by someone with hepatitis C
  • holding hands, hugging, or kissing someone with hepatitis C
  • being near someone with hepatitis C when they cough or sneeze
  • breast-feeding (babies can’t get hepatitis C through a mother’s breast milk)


Knowing your risk factors for getting the virus will help you prevent transmission. If you believe that you may have hepatitis C, talk to your doctor and seek early treatment. This can help reduce your chance of liver damage.

Read Video Transcript »

Break It Down: Treatments for Hep C (Transcript)


Hepatitis C, also called Hep C, is a viral infection that can cause inflammation and eventually serious damage to the liver. The virus is most commonly spread through human contact with infected blood. The symptoms of Hep C are usually very mild to undetectable, so you may have no idea that you’re infected. Left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer, both of which can be fatal.


The people most at risk for contracting Hep C are users of illegal intravenous drugs, particularly persons who share needles with someone who’s infected. Medical professionals are also at risk when they come in contact with an infected person who’s bleeding or has an open wound. Historically, blood transfusions and organ transplants exposed people to Hep C, but modern screening processes have largely eliminated that risk in the United States. In rare instances, the virus can be spread through unprotected sexual contact or by sharing personal hygiene items, such as toothbrushes and razors.

About 15 to 20 percent of people infected with hepatitis C don’t require medical treatment and suffer no long-term damage to their health. But if your immune system doesn’t resolve the problem on its own, Hep C enters a chronic phase where the infection begins to damage the liver. However, there still may be minimal or no symptoms. Because of this, chronic Hep C can go unnoticed for years, or only be discovered from a blood test.


Treatments for Hepatitis C are evolving quickly and vary based on the specific genotype, or version, of the virus. The current standard of care is use of an anti-viral medication, called a polymerase inhibitor, to help eradicate the infection. This therapy is combined with ribavirin, which is an immune system booster. A third medication, called interferon, is sometimes added. These treatments can take from 12 to 24 weeks. The good news is that a large percentage of persons with chronic hepatitis C respond positively and can be cured.

The latest treatments for Hepatitis C utilize what are called “direct-acting antivirals.” These medications, which include protease inhibitors, target specific aspects of the virus and prevent it from replicating. These newer antivirals are packaged with other drugs, such as ribavirin, into multi-drug cocktails that attack the infection on several fronts. These newest treatments are up to 96% effective, even among patients who didn’t respond to prior therapies. All of these treatments carry a risk for side effects. Your doctor will tailor the therapy based on how long you’ve had hepatitis and if you’re also being treated for another condition, such as HIV.

As in most things medical, some patients respond better than others, and some strains of the disease are harder to fight than others. If hepatitis C progresses to the point that the liver is no longer able to function, liver transplantation may be the only viable course of action.

It’s important to note that many people with chronic hepatitis C live perfectly normal lives. Clinicians and scientists wish that this disease was more predictable, but for now, that is simply not possible. Even with the latest therapeutic advances, every effort should be made to avoid becoming infected by the hepatitis C virus.