Hepatitis C is a chronic viral infection that causes liver inflammation. Although some cases are acute, more than half become chronic. If left untreated, chronic hepatitis can cause complications such as liver damage, liver scarring, and liver cancer.

Hepatitis C is transmitted from one person to another through blood. The risk of transmission during sex is generally low. However, the risk increases when the sexual activity involves contact with blood.

Take a moment to learn how the virus is transmitted and what you can do to protect yourself and your sexual partners.

Hepatitis C is a bloodborne infection. It’s usually transmitted when a person comes into contact with the blood of someone else who has the virus.

This can happen when people:

  • share needles or syringes
  • share personal care items such as razors or nail clippers
  • get a tattoo or piercing with nonsterile equipment

It’s also possible for someone to contract the virus:

  • during birth, if their birth mother has the virus
  • from an organ transplant or blood transfusion, particularly if it was received before 1992 when blood screening tests became widespread
  • through sexual activity that involves contact with blood

Hepatitis C is rarely found in semen, saliva, or vaginal fluid. The virus has been detected in these bodily fluids but usually in levels that are too low to cause an infection.

It’s uncommon for hepatitis C to be transmitted from one person to another during sex, but it can happen. The risk of transmission is higher during sexual activities that involve contact with blood, such as:

  • anal sex without a condom
  • rough vaginal sex without a condom
  • sex during menstruation without a condom

Anal sex

Anal sex can cause small tears around the opening of the anus. These tears can bleed and allow the virus to spread during sex without a condom.

Sexual transmission of hepatitis C is higher among men who have sex with men, but it may be transmitted between partners who have anal sex without a condom regardless of gender.

Rough vaginal sex

Rough vaginal sex can cause small tears around the opening of the vagina.

If someone has hepatitis C, bleeding from vaginal tears may transmit the virus to their partner during vaginal sex without a condom.

Sex during menstruation

Hepatitis C can be present in menstrual blood.

If someone with hepatitis C is menstruating, vaginal sex without a condom may transmit the virus to their partner.

Other sexual practices and risk factors

Other sexual practices that increase the risk of hepatitis C transmission include:

  • sharing sex toys that have been used anally or during menstruation
  • fingering, which can cause bleeding
  • fisting, which can cause bleeding

The risk of hepatitis C transmission is also higher among people with HIV. This is because HIV weakens the immune system, which can raise the risk of contracting viral infections and other illnesses.

About 2.4 million people in the United States live with hepatitis C, according to 2016 estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Understanding how the virus is transmitted and taking protective measures can help protect you and your sexual partners from hepatitis C.

To reduce the risk of transmission during sex:

  • Follow your doctor’s recommendations for STI testing. Talk with them about your sexual habits and other risk factors. Ask them if you should get tested for hepatitis C or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Talk with sexual partners about their STI status. Ask them if they’ve been tested since their last sexual relationship.
  • Get treatment for STIs. Ask your doctor about treatment options if you test positive for hepatitis C or other STIs.
  • Use barrier methods like condoms during sex. This is particularly important if you have multiple sexual partners or you’re having anal sex, rough vaginal sex, or sex during menstruation when you or your partner may have hepatitis C.

Other ways to prevent hepatitis C:

  • Don’t share needles or syringes. Also avoid sharing other equipment used to inject drugs.
  • Only visit reputable piercing and tattoo shops. Don’t be afraid to ask the shops and artists about their sterilization procedures. Make sure they use a new disposable needle.
  • Don’t share personal care items. The blood of someone with hepatitis C may be present on their toothbrush, nail clippers, razors, or other personal care items.
  • Avoid direct contact with blood. If you’re caring for someone who’s bleeding, wear disposable gloves. Wash your hands with soap and water, and disinfect any equipment or surfaces that may have come into contact with blood.

The risk of hepatitis C transmission through sex is low, but it is possible.

Your chances of contracting or transmitting the virus during sex are higher during sexual activity that involves exposure to blood.

You can protect yourself and your partners by using barrier methods during sex and following your doctor’s recommendations for STI testing and treatment.

Hepatitis C is treatable with antiviral medications. If you believe you’ve been exposed to hepatitis C, contact your doctor to get tested.