What Is Hepatitis C?

The hepatitis C virus (HCV) causes a chronic liver infection. Over time, this infection can lead to liver damage, liver cancer, and even liver failure.

HCV is a blood-borne virus. That means it passes from one person to another through contact with contaminated blood. The most common way HCV spreads is through the shared use of contaminated needles and other equipment used for drugs.

Sharing personal items that may come into contact with blood, such as a razor or toothbrush, can also spread HCV, but the likelihood of this is low. You can’t pass HCV by kissing, holding hands, or sharing eating utensils with an infected person.

HCV isn’t a sexually transmitted disease. It’s possible for you to contract HCV through unprotected or rough sex with an infected person, but the risk is very low.

What Are the Risk Factors for Hepatitis C?

The two most common risk factors for being HCV-positive are injection drug use and having had a blood transfusion before 1992. Before 1992, blood donations weren’t tested for the virus. Many people were infected when they were given virus-positive blood during a transfusion. Today, all donated blood is checked for HCV, among other infections and viruses.

A third risk factor is having tattoos. In one study, people with HCV were found to be more likely to have tattoos than people without the virus. This study also controlled for people who may have become infected because of injected drug use and a contaminated blood transfusion. Not only is it possible to share your infection if you have HCV and get a tattoo, but you might also develop an infection from exposure to a contaminated needle.

HCV Prevention and Tattoos

Tiny needles puncture your skin when you’re getting a tattoo. This can cause bleeding. With each puncture, drops of pigment are inserted into the layers of skin. If infected blood remains on the tattoo needle or is in the pigment, the virus could be transferred to you during the tattoo process.

Before you sit down for your tattoo, take these safety precautions to keep you from getting infected:

  • Find a reputable tattoo artist. An artist in the back of a van may not be your wisest choice. You’re looking for someone who has a clean, sterile tattoo environment. Seek out tattoo studios that have licensed individuals with a good reputation for healthy, clean work.
  • Ask the artist to wear gloves. You may not be in a true medical environment, but your tattoo artist should treat your tattoo experience much like a doctor treats an examination. They should wear gloves and protective gear to prevent the spread of blood.
  • Demand new equipment. Watch as your tattoo artist removes a new needle from a sealed, sterilized packet. If you don’t see them open the needle, ask for another one and explain why you’re asking. Also, request new, unused pigments and containers, too.
  • Take steps to make sure you heal properly. Give your new tattoo up to two to three weeks to properly and fully heal before removing your bandages. Don’t pick at any scabs left by the tattoo process. Contact your doctor immediately if you develop signs of an infection, such as redness or pus drainage, or if your tattoo comes into contact with another person’s blood.

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

HCV may go undetected and undiagnosed for years, even decades. That’s because the virus and infection rarely cause side effects or symptoms until the infection has progressed. In many cases, HCV is found when liver damage is discovered through routine medical testing.

In the early stages, HCV may cause the following symptoms:

  • fatigue
  • muscle and joint pain
  • stomach pain
  • nausea
  • a lack of appetite
  • dark urine
  • a fever
  • a yellow tint to your skin and eyes, which is called jaundice

The symptoms of an advanced HCV infection can include:

  • weight loss
  • swelling in your arms and legs
  • fluid accumulation in your abdomen
  • bleeding or bruising easily
  • itchiness
  • confusion
  • slurred speech
  • changes in blood vessels to resemble spider-like appearances

Getting a Tattoo If You Have HCV

If you have HCV and want a tattoo, the same rules for preventing an infection apply for preventing the spread of the virus. Let your tattoo artist know about your HCV-positive status. If the artist is uncomfortable giving you a tattoo, seek out an artist who’s trained and capable of tattooing people with HCV.

Be sure to ask for new equipment for your tattoo. Watch as your artist throws the equipment away or sterilizes it after your tattoo is finished. Ask your artist to wear gloves during the tattooing process, and cover your new tattoo with sterile gauze until it has fully healed, scars and all.

When to See Your Doctor

If you’ve had a tattoo procedure and you’ve experienced some of the symptoms of HCV, it’s worth asking your doctor for a blood test for HCV. It’s important to remember how infrequently HCV is passed between two people during a tattoo procedure, though it’s possible.

If you’re HCV-positive, you can begin treatment right away. The sooner your infection is discovered, the sooner you can begin treatment.