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How Is Hepatitis C Transmitted?

Medically reviewed by Mark R. LaFlamme, MD on February 18, 2016Written by Robin Madell on November 21, 2013

A hepatitis C infection can lead to serious liver damage, so it’s important to know all of the ways it can be transmitted. Still, figuring out how the virus is transmitted can be tricky. More than 40 percent of all hepatitis C cases cannot identify the source of infection.

Keep reading to find out all the ways hepatitis C can be transmitted and what increases your risk.

Transmission via blood

The most common way to get hepatitis C is through exposure to infected blood. This can happen if the blood of someone who has hepatitis C enters your own bloodstream.

This might happen if you:

  • use a needle or syringe to inject drugs into your body that someone with hepatitis C has already used
  • are injured by a needle stick in a lab or other healthcare setting, if that needle has come into contact with blood infected by hepatitis C
  • share razors, toothbrushes, or other personal hygiene items that may have touched an infected person’s blood

Sexual transmission

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you can also get hepatitis C from sexual contact. But certain sexual behaviors are riskier than others when it comes to increasing your chances of becoming infected.

You increase your risk of getting hepatitis C if you:

  • have more than one sexual partner
  • have a sexually transmitted disease
  • have HIV
  • engage in sex that’s rough or could cause bleeding

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) advises condom use during sex to help prevent the spread of infection.

Tattooing or piercing

The CDC notes that infectious diseases like hepatitis C can be transmitted through unregulated settings that provide tattooing, body piercing, or body art.

Commercially licensed tattooing businesses are generally thought to be safe. However, more informal settings that offer tattooing or piercing services may not have adequate safeguards to help avoid the spread of infections.

Precautions at home

If your skin is directly exposed to the blood of someone who has hepatitis C, you may contract the virus. This situation is rare, but it’s still important to take some precautions at home:

  • Clean any blood spills thoroughly. Blood on a surface can still be infectious, including dried blood.
  • Wear rubber gloves when cleaning blood. Use one part household bleach to 10 parts water.

The genetic connection

Did your mother have hepatitis C when you were born? Although rare, you will have a slightly higher risk for getting the virus and you should be tested for it.

The infection often has no visible symptoms for many years. A blood test is one of the only ways to confirm a diagnosis.

How hepatitis C isn't spread

It’s as important to know how hepatitis C can’t be transmitted as it is to know how you may get the virus. The CDC confirms that you can’t get hepatitis C through:

  • eating with utensils shared by someone with hepatitis C
  • holding hands, hugging, or kissing someone with hepatitis C
  • being near someone with hepatitis C when they cough or sneeze
  • breast-feeding (babies can’t get hepatitis C through a mother’s breast milk)

Overview

Knowing your risk factors for getting the virus will help you prevent transmission. If you believe that you may have hepatitis C, talk to your doctor and seek early treatment. This can help reduce your chance of liver damage.

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