Hepatitis C is an infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). It can lead to serious liver damage, so it’s important to know all the ways it can be transmitted.
This can be tricky: Many people with hepatitis C can’t identify the source of their infection.
Keep reading to find out all the ways that hepatitis C can be transmitted, what increases your risk, and why testing is so important.
People contract hepatitis C by coming into contact with the blood of someone who has the virus. This can happen in several different ways.
Sharing drug equipment
One of the
This can expose them to the bodily fluids of others, including those with HCV.
Since drug use can affect judgment, people may continue to repeat behaviors like needle sharing.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one person with HCV who injects drugs can potentially go on to transmit the virus to 20 other people.
Poor infection control for tattooing and piercing
Commercially licensed tattooing and piercing businesses are generally thought to be safe.
More informal settings may not have adequate safeguards to help avoid the spread of infections. Receiving a tattoo or piercing in settings such as in a prison or in a home with friends carries a
Prior to 1992, receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplant was a significant risk factor for contracting HCV. However, this route of transmission is now considered very rare.
According to the
Nonsterile medical equipment
In rare cases, HCV can be spread through nonsterile medical equipment. This can occur due to things such as:
- reusing a needle or syringe that someone with hepatitis C has already used
- mishandling of multidose drug vials or intravenous drugs such that they become contaminated with the blood of someone with hepatitis C
- poor sanitation of medical equipment
Consistently using appropriate infection control measures can limit this type of transmission. From
Sharing hygiene supplies
Another way that hepatitis C gets transmitted is through the sharing of personal hygiene products that have come into contact with the blood of someone with HCV.
Some examples include things like razors, toothbrushes, and nail clippers.
According to the
Certain sexual behaviors have a higher risk than others when it comes to increasing your chances of contracting the virus.
Pregnancy and childbirth
Hepatitis C can be passed to a baby during childbirth, but this only occurs in about
If your mother had hepatitis C when you were born, you may have a slightly higher risk of getting the virus.
It’s also possible to get hepatitis C through an accidental injury, such as getting stuck with a needle that has come into contact with blood that contains HCV. This type of exposure often occurs in a healthcare setting.
However, the risk of contracting hepatitis C due to something like a needle stick is still rather low. It’s estimated that only about 1.8 percent of occupational exposures to HCV lead to an infection, although this number may be even lower.
How hepatitis C isn’t spread
- 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
- breastfeeding (babies can’t get hepatitis C through breast milk)
- food and water
Sexual contact is considered to be an
- having sex without condoms with more than one sexual partner
- having a sexually transmitted infection or HIV
- engaging in sexual activity that could cause bleeding
The National Institutes of Health advises using condoms during sex to help prevent the spread of infection. Also, don’t hesitate to talk with your doctor if you have questions or concerns about your risk factors.
Some factors can increase your risk of contracting hepatitis C. These include:
- current or past use of injection drugs
- exposure to HCV virus through an injury such as a needle stick
- being born to a mother that has HCV
- getting a tattoo or piercing using nonsterile equipment
- receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to 1992
- receiving clotting factors prior to 1987
- being on kidney dialysis (hemodialysis)
- living or working in a prison
Some people that have HCV will clear their infection. However, in 75 to 85 percent of people, the infection will become chronic.
Medications are now available to help clear HCV from your body. According to the CDC,
Because your body doesn’t generate a strong immune response to HCV, it’s possible to contract the virus again. While the rate of reinfection
- inject drugs
- have HIV
- engage in sexual activities that may lead to bleeding
People with hepatitis C can’t currently donate blood. The American Red Cross eligibility guidelines prohibit people who have ever tested positive for hepatitis C from donating blood, even if the infection never caused symptoms.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), information on organ donation, those with underlying medical conditions shouldn’t rule themselves out as organ donors. This reflects new guidelines for organ donation announced by the HHS.
People with HCV are now able to be organ donors. This is because advances in testing and medical technology can help the transplant team determine which organs or tissues can be safely used for transplantation.
A blood test is one of the only ways to confirm a diagnosis of hepatitis C. Additionally, hepatitis C often has no visible symptoms for many years.
Because of this, it’s important to be tested if you believe you’ve been exposed to the virus. Getting a timely diagnosis can help ensure you receive treatment before permanent liver damage occurs.
One-time HCV testing is recommended for people who:
- have HIV
- were born to a mother with HCV
- previously injected drugs
- previously received kidney dialysis
- received a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to 1992 or clotting factors prior to 1987
- were exposed to HCV-positive blood through an accident such as a needle stick
Some groups should receive more routine testing. These groups include people who are currently using injected drugs and those currently receiving kidney dialysis.
HCV can be spread through contact with the blood of someone who has the virus. This most commonly happens by reusing drug equipment.
However, it can also occur via needle sticks, sharing hygiene items, and nonsterile tattooing or piercing practices. Sexual transmission is rare.
Knowing the risk factors for contracting HCV will help prevent transmission of the virus. If you believe that you may have hepatitis C, talk with your doctor about testing and seek early treatment. This can help reduce your chance of liver damage.