Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The disease can be passed from person to person.
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.
Researchers in one 2013 study found that 1 out of every 190,000 instances of heterosexual sexual contact led to HCV transmission. Participants in the study were in monogamous sexual relationships.
HCV may be more likely to spread through sexual contact if you:
- have multiple sexual partners
- participate in rough sex, which is more likely to result in broken skin or bleeding
- don’t use barrier protection, such as condoms or dental dams
- don’t use barrier protection properly
- have a sexually transmitted infection or HIV
There’s no evidence that HCV can be spread through oral sex. However, it may still be possible if blood is present from either the person giving or receiving oral sex.
For example, a slight risk may exist if any of the following are present:
- menstrual blood
- bleeding gums
- throat infection
- cold sores
- canker sores
- genital warts
- any other breaks in the skin in the involved areas
Though sexual transmission is rare overall, HCV may be more likely to spread through anal sex than oral sex. This is because rectal tissue is more likely to tear during intercourse.
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, such as:
- nail clippers
The virus can’t be transmitted through casual contact, such as 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. 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 won’t 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.
People who’ve injected illicit drugs are at the greatest risk.
HIV and hepatitis C coinfection can be common. Anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of people who use IV drugs and have HIV also have hepatitis C. This is because both conditions have similar risk factors, including needle sharing and unprotected sex.
If you received a blood transfusion, blood products, or an organ transplant before June 1992, you may be at risk for HCV. Prior to this time, blood tests weren’t as sensitive to HCV, so it’s possible to have received infected blood or tissue. Those who received clotting factors before 1987 are also at risk.
A vaccine to protect against HCV doesn’t currently exist. But there are ways to prevent infection.
General tips for prevention
Refrain from engaging in IV drug use and be cautious with all procedures that involve needles.
For example, you shouldn’t 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 or dental setting.
Tips for preventing transmission through sex
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 sexual transmission include:
- using a condom during every sexual contact, including oral sex
- learning to use all barrier devices correctly 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
- using extra precautions if you’re HIV-positive, as your chance of contracting HCV is much higher if you have HIV
If you have hepatitis C, you should be honest with all sexual partners about your status. This ensures that you’re both taking the proper precautions to prevent transmission.
If you think you’ve been exposed to HCV, it’s important to get tested. The hepatitis C antibody test, also known as the anti-HCV test, measures a person’s blood to see if they’ve ever had the virus. If a person has ever been infected with HCV, their 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 that 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. 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.
About 3.2 million people in the United States have HCV. A large number of them don’t know they have it, because they don’t experience symptoms. During this time, they can pass the virus on to their partners. And although sexual contact isn’t the most common way a person gets hepatitis C, it can happen.
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.