Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). This disease can be passed from person to person.

About 2.4 million people in the United States have HCV. Many of them do not know they have it since they don’t experience symptoms. During this time, they can unknowingly pass the virus on to their partners.

As with many infections, HCV lives in blood and bodily fluids. You can contract hepatitis C through exposure to the blood of someone who has it. It can also be transmitted by contact with bodily fluids, like saliva or semen, 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 transmit through sexual contact if you:

  • have multiple sexual partners
  • participate in rough sex, which is more likely to result in broken skin or bleeding
  • do not use barrier protection, such as condoms or dental dams
  • do not use barrier protection properly
  • have a sexually transmitted infection or HIV

There’s no evidence that HCV can be transmitted 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 transmit through anal sex than oral sex. This is because rectal tissue is more likely to tear during intercourse, according to the earlier mentioned 2013 study.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, sharing needles is the most common way somebody can contract hepatitis C.

Less common ways include sharing personal hygiene products with someone who has hepatitis C, like:

  • razors
  • toothbrushes
  • nail clippers

The virus cannot be transmitted through casual contact, like sharing a cup or eating utensils with someone who has it. Hugging, holding hands, and kissing also will not transmit it. You cannot contract hepatitis C from someone sneezing or coughing on you.

Breastfeeding and chestfeeding

Breastfeeding and chestfeeding cannot transmit HCV to a baby, but babies born to a birthing parent with hepatitis C are more likely to have the virus. If a birthing parent has hepatitis C, there is a 1 in 25 chance they will transmit the virus to their baby.

If the non-birthing parent has hepatitis C, but the birthing parent does not, the virus will not be transmitted to their baby. It’s possible that a non-birthing parent could transmit the virus to the birthing parent, which could then be transmitted to the baby.

Whether the baby is delivered vaginally or via cesarean delivery does not affect the risk of transmitting the virus.

Having HIV and hepatitis C at the same time is 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 sex without a condom or other barrier devices.

People who have injected illegal drugs are at the greatest risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you received a blood transfusion, blood products, or an organ transplant before July of 1992, you might be at risk for HCV. Before this time, blood tests were not as sensitive to HCV, so it’s possible to have received blood or tissue with the virus.

Those who received clotting factors before 1987 are also at risk.

A vaccine to protect against HCV does not currently exist. But there are ways to prevent transmission.

General tips for prevention

Avoid engaging in IV drug use and be cautious with all procedures that involve needles.

You should not share needles used for tattooing, piercing, or acupuncture. The equipment should always be carefully sterilized for safety. 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 transmitting it to others.

A few steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of sexual transmission include:

  • using a condom during all 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 on 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.

You can learn more on Healthline’s page about dating with hepatitis C.

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 contracted 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 transmit it to a sexual partner without knowing it.

Although sexual contact isn’t the most common way for a person to contract hepatitis C, it can happen.

It’s important that you ask your sexual partners to be tested regularly and that you practice sex using condoms and other barrier devices.

Regular testing and using barrier devices during sex will help keep you and your sexual partners healthy.