Separating fact from fiction

Hepatitis C is a virus that causes an infection, liver inflammation, and eventually liver damage. It’s spread by contact with infected blood.

Hepatitis C carries with it a lot of misunderstandings and myths. But when it comes to the serious and potentially deadly virus, separating fact from fiction may mean the difference between life and death.

Keep reading to learn the truth about some common hepatitis C questions.

The hepatitis C virus can live outside the human body — and for quite some time. If blood containing the virus ends up on a surface, the virus can remain viable for up to 3 weeks.

This contamination is most likely to occur if blood is spilled or splattered during an accident. That’s why it’s important you clean up after yourself if you have hepatitis C and cut yourself, or if you live in a house with someone who has the virus.

Hepatitis C is rarely spread through casual contact with an infected surface, but these extra precautions are helpful:

  • Be sure to wear thick rubber gloves.
  • If you have an open cut on your hand, consider wearing an extra glove for added protection.
  • Combine 1 part bleach with 10 parts water.
  • Use a disposable cloth or paper towel to wipe the area several times with the bleach solution.

Hepatitis C passes between people through contact with infected blood. An uninfected person must encounter an infected person’s blood in some way to get hepatitis C.

It can’t be spread through kissing, holding hands, or hugging. It’s also not spread through contact with food or beverage, so you can’t contract hepatitis C by sharing eating utensils or a drinking glass with an infected person.

Decades ago, people were testing positive for hepatitis C after getting tattoos. The culprit? Dirty equipment.

Even licensed, commercial tattoo studios can have spotty hygiene and cleaning practices. If the equipment the tattoo artist or piercer uses is clean and sterile, you don’t have an increased risk of getting hepatitis C.

If the equipment looks less then pristine or you have any hesitations after meeting with the artist, reconsider your choice, and look for a more sterile alternative.

Hepatitis C is shared when blood from an infected person enters the body of a person who isn’t infected with the virus. Passing hepatitis C through sexual contact is very rare. This statistic is based on heterosexual partners in monogamous sexual relationships.

Your risk for contracting hepatitis C through a sexual encounter is higher if you have multiple partners, engage in rough sex, or already have an STD.

Today, most people are infected with hepatitis C after sharing dirty needles or other paraphernalia for drug use. In rare cases, you can contract hepatitis C by using a tool that has an infected person’s blood on it, such as toothbrushes and razors.

Learn more about how hepatitis C can and can’t be sexually transmitted »

Vaccines are a way to expose your body to a virus before you encounter the live virus naturally. A vaccine contains traces of a dead virus, so your body can form a “memory” of the virus. Your body then “remembers” how to attack and destroy the virus if you ever come into contact with it.

There isn’t a vaccine for hepatitis C at this time. Hepatitis C has many different subtypes and strains, so creating a vaccine that protects against all the different types is complicated. Vaccines are available for both hepatitis A and B, but one for hepatitis C hasn’t been approved.

If you have hepatitis C, your doctor may suggest you get the vaccine for both hepatitis A and B. These two types of viruses cause liver damage, so the added protection is a smart idea.

Not everyone with hepatitis C will show symptoms of the condition. In fact, 70 to 80 percent of people with the virus will never show a symptom.

If symptoms occur, they usually first appear during a window of six to seven weeks after exposure. Some people may show symptoms as early as two weeks after exposure, and others may not show symptoms for as much as six months.

The earliest symptoms of a hepatitis C infection include:

  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • dark urine
  • a yellow tint in the eyes and on the skin (jaundice)

Learn more about when to get tested after possible hepatitis C exposure »

You can breastfeed your baby if you have a hepatitis C infection. Researchers have never found a case where a mother with hepatitis C has passed the infection to her infant through breastfeeding.

Hepatitis C is transmitted through contact with infected blood. Breastmilk doesn’t come into contact with blood. However, if your nipples or the areola are cracked or bleeding, you should avoid breastfeeding until they’re healed.

Use a breast pump to express milk until your nipples are healed, and talk with your infant’s pediatrician about supplemental milk. Once the cracked or scabbed areas are healed, you can resume breastfeeding.

Two types of hepatitis C exist. The first, acute hepatitis C, is a short-term infection. The main complication of acute hepatitis C is that it will develop into long-term, or chronic, hepatitis C.

The early stages of a hepatitis C infection may cause few symptoms. During this phase, you may not even know you have an infection.

About 30 percent of people who develop an acute hepatitis C infection will be able to clear the virus without treatment. Once it has developed into chronic hepatitis C, the virus will need treatment before it will go away.

Doctors aren’t sure why some people’s immune systems can eliminate the virus and some can’t. Treatment for acute hepatitis C is the same as chronic hepatitis C. Treatment reduces the risk of an acute hepatitis C infection turning into a chronic one.

Treatments for this virus have improved dramatically in recent decades. Older treatments relied on strengthening the body’s immune system and not attacking the virus directly. Newer medicines, however, work directly on the virus’s cells.

Today’s treatments can virtually cure hepatitis C. Once you complete treatment, your viral load will be checked regularly. If the virus is still undetectable in your blood after three months, you’re considered “cured” of hepatitis C.

Learn more about your treatment options »

About 15 to 25 percent of people who get hepatitis C will eventually clear the virus from their body entirely. This can be done through treatment, or the body can spontaneously eliminate the virus.

Having the hepatitis C virus once doesn’t protect you against contracting it again. However, if you encounter the virus in the future, your risk for infected again is dramatically lower because of your previous infection. The best way to avoid being infected again is to reduce behaviors that put you at risk.

Many people choose to stay silent with their questions and concerns because of common misconceptions about hepatitis C. However, knowing the truth can ease your mind and help you take care of yourself or your loved ones in a healthy manner.

If you have questions not answered here, be sure to talk with your doctor. The science behind hepatitis C and viruses like it changes frequently, so stay up to date with your doctor’s guidance.

Learn more about how hepatitis C affects the body »