Hepatitis C is a liver disease that can cause either short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic) illness. Chronic hepatitis C can lead to serious, even life-threatening complications. Whether acute or chronic, it’s a contagious disease caused by the hepatitis C virus.

In the United States, it’s estimated that 2.7 to 3.9 million people are living with chronic hepatitis C.

If you have hepatitis C or are close to someone who has it, you may be concerned about disease transmission. That’s certainly understandable. It’s important to remember that the main method of transmission is through contact with infected blood.

Read on to learn how hepatitis C does — and doesn’t — spread, plus some practical tips to help prevent transmission.

The virus spreads from direct contact with infected blood. This means that the blood of an infected person somehow gets inside the body of someone who, up to that point, wasn’t infected.

The most common method of hepatitis C transmission is sharing needles or other equipment used to inject drugs. It can also spread in a healthcare setting, such as from an accidental needle stick. A mother can pass it to her baby during childbirth.

It’s less common, but you can pick up the virus by sharing razors, toothbrushes, or other personal care items with an infected person.

It can also spread through sexual contact. This is more likely to occur if you:

  • have multiple sex partners
  • engage in rough sex
  • have a sexually transmitted disease
  • are infected with HIV

It’s possible that the virus can be transmitted during tattooing or body piercing if the practitioner doesn’t follow strict hygienic practices.

Since 1992, screening of the blood supply in the United States has kept hepatitis C from spreading during blood transfusion and organ transplants.

Learn more: Hepatitis C and HIV coinfection »

The hepatitis C virus spreads through blood, but it isn’t known to spread through other bodily fluids.

It isn’t transmitted in food or water, or by sharing eating utensils or dishes with an infected person. You can’t spread it by casual contact such as hugging or holding hands. It’s not transmitted in a kiss, a cough, or a sneeze. Mothers with hepatitis C can safely breastfeed. Even mosquito and other insect bites won’t spread it.

In short, you have to come into direct contact with infected blood.

If you live with someone who has hepatitis C, there’s no reason to avoid close personal contact. Feel free to touch, kiss, and cuddle.

The most important thing you can do to prevent getting the virus is to avoid contact with the infected person’s blood. Blood can be infectious even when it’s dry. In fact, the virus can live in blood on surfaces for up to three weeks.

That’s why you should take great care when cleaning up blood spills, however small or old they are.

Here are a few tips for dealing with blood:

  • If you see blood, assume it’s infectious.
  • If you have to clean or touch a blood spill, wear disposable gloves. Inspect the gloves for tears and holes before using them.
  • Mop up using paper towels or disposable rags.
  • Disinfect the area with a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.
  • When finished, dispose of the rags or paper towels in a plastic bag. Remove the gloves carefully and dispose of them as well.
  • Wear gloves if you have to touch used bandages or menstrual products that weren’t disposed of properly.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after coming into contact with blood, even if you wore gloves.

Some personal care items can sometimes contain a small amount of blood. Don’t share things like a toothbrush, razor, or manicure scissors.

If you think you may have been exposed to the virus, contact your doctor to find out when you can be tested. Early treatment can help prevent serious liver damage.

Although it’s possible to transmit hepatitis C during sex, it’s not common, especially for monogamous couples. Using latex condoms can help you lower the risk even more.

The virus is more likely to spread when you have multiple sex partners. It may be possible to transmit it during oral sex, but there’s no evidence that it actually has spread this way.

Anal sex can cause damage to your rectum. Tiny tears can raise the likelihood of passing the virus through blood, but condoms can help lower the risk.

Hugging, kissing, and other displays of intimacy won’t spread the virus.

Ribavirin is an antiviral medication used to treat hepatitis C. It can cause severe birth defects. This is true no matter which partner is taking it.

Ribavirin is also known as tribavirin or RTCA and is sold under these brand names:

  • Copegus
  • Moderiba
  • Rebetol
  • Ribasphere
  • Virazole

If you take this medication, both partners should use birth control. Continue doing so for six months after you stop taking the drug.

Hepatitis C is also more likely to spread if you:

  • also have HIV or a sexually transmitted disease
  • have sex during a menstrual period
  • have open cuts or sores on your genitals
  • have rough sex that results in small tears or bleeding

Learn more: Dating with hepatitis C »

If you’re living with hepatitis C, you certainly don’t want to pass it to anyone else.

Because the virus spreads through direct contact with infected blood, here are some of the things you can do to prevent spreading it:

  • Never share needles or other injection equipment. If you use IV drugs, ask your doctor about substance abuse treatment programs.
  • Always use bandages to cover up cuts and scratches.
  • Be very careful when disposing of items that may have blood on them. These may include bandages, tampons or other menstrual products, and tissues.
  • Don’t share personal items, such as your toothbrush, razor, or fingernail scissors, with anyone.
  • Don’t donate blood. Blood donations are tested for hepatitis C, so it will be discarded anyway.
  • Don’t sign up to be an organ donor or donate semen.
  • Always tell healthcare workers of your hepatitis C status.
  • If you cut yourself, clean up the blood promptly and thoroughly using a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. Carefully dispose of or disinfect anything that touched your blood.
  • Inform your sex partner about your hepatitis C status. Using latex condoms will help lower the chance of spreading the virus.

A mother can pass the virus to her baby during childbirth, but the risk is less than 5 percent. It’s more likely to happen if you also have HIV. If you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, ask your doctor if you should get tested.

The virus isn’t spread through breast milk, but you should stop breastfeeding if your nipples are cracked and there’s a possibility of bleeding. You can breastfeed again once they’re healed.

You can only spread hepatitis C through contact with infected blood. By taking the proper precautions, you can help prevent spreading of the virus.

Although hepatitis C doesn’t easily transmit during sexual contact, it’s good practice to inform your sex partner that you have it.

An open discussion with loved ones about risks and preventive measures will allow them to ask questions and learn more about the virus, how to protect themselves, and what’s involved in hepatitis C screening.