The virus that causes hepatitis C (HCV) is a bloodborne pathogen. That means that being exposed to blood from a person who is infected can spread the infection.

In fact, chronic hepatitis C is the most common bloodborne pathogen infection, affecting an estimated 2.4 million people in the United States.

Hepatitis C causes inflammation in your liver, but sometimes doesn’t present other symptoms for months or even years. Many people who have hepatitis C are unaware that they have it, meaning they can unknowingly spread the virus to others. If you have untreated hepatitis C, your infection can progress from acute to chronic.

There is currently no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, although there are vaccines for hepatitis A and B. Treatment with antiviral medication can help your body clear the infection and prevent long-term complications.

Let’s explore what we know so far about hepatitis C spread and prevention.

Bloodborne pathogens like hepatitis C can only be spread to others through contact with blood from a person carrying the virus. Hepatitis C is contagious whether the infection is acute or chronic.

Here’s an overview of how hepatitis C can be transmitted.

IV drug use

Intravenous (IV) drug use is a common way that hepatitis C is spread in the United States. People who share equipment used to inject drugs are at a higher risk of hepatitis C than people who don’t use these types of drugs.

Needles and syringes can become contaminated with hepatitis C even if the person is asymptomatic and doesn’t know they have the virus. If someone has the virus and injects a drug, some of their blood remains in the needle. When another person uses the same needle, they are sending blood carrying the virus into their body.

It’s recommended that people who inject drugs, including heroin, get tested regularly for bloodborne viruses such as hepatitis C.

Another virus commonly spread through IV drug use is HIV.

Addressing IV drug use and hepatitis C spread

The safest way to prevent hepatitis transmission through IV drug use is to refrain from injecting drugs, or cease doing so.

If you are living with a substance use disorder, know that you’re not alone and help is available. Visit SAMHSA’s treatment locater page to find resources and support options in your area.

Many states also have clinics or stations that provide clean, new needles and syringes. These syringe service programs (SSP) have been shown to reduce hepatitis and HIV transmission through IV drug use by around 50 percent.

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Blood transfusions and medical equipment

When researchers first detected hepatitis C, blood transfusions were a notable cause of spreading the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you received a blood transfusion or an organ donation prior to 1992, your risk of hepatitis C is higher.

The World Health Organization notes that medical equipment that hasn’t been properly sterilized and blood that hasn’t been properly screened has driven hepatitis transmission in the past.

But these days, with advancements in technology and medical hygiene, getting a blood transfusion very rarely results in spreading hepatitis C. Advanced screening methods for blood transfusions have brought the chances of acquiring hepatitis down to one blood unit out of 2 million.

People who have tested positive for hepatitis B or C at any point in their lives are also now restricted from donating blood as an extra precaution.

Sex without protection

Hepatitis C is not often spread through sexual contact, but it can happen. Certain types of sexual activity have been linked with an increased risk of hepatitis C transmission.

These include:

  • sex during menstruation
  • anal sex
  • having multiple sex partners
  • sex with people who use IV drugs

During pregnancy

Pregnant people who have hepatitis C can pass the virus to their fetus. However, this doesn’t always happen.

Six percent of babies born to a mother who has hepatitis C will be born with the virus. If you are pregnant, you should get tested for hepatitis C at least once during your pregnancy.

Learn more about testing for hepatitis C.

Unsafe tattoo and piercing practices

Getting a tattoo or a piercing at a location where these procedures aren’t legally regulated can put you at risk for hepatitis C. A tattoo needle that’s been used on another person, or failure to properly sterilize piercing equipment, can expose you to bloodborne viruses.

When seeking a piercing or tattoo, make sure you see a professional who is licensed. For states that don’t require licensing, artists usually still need to register with an enforcement agency to ensure they are following proper safety and hygiene practices.

Hepatitis C is often asymptomatic, meaning there are no noticeable signs of infection. If you do develop symptoms, they may not appear until the infection has become chronic.


If you develop symptoms of acute hepatitis C, some or all of these symptoms may appear 1 to 3 months after you have been exposed to blood from an infected person.

Symptoms of an acute hepatitis C infection may look like:


Symptoms of chronic hepatitis C may not appear until you have had the infection for some time.

Chronic hepatitis C is linked to serious, long-term health complications, such as liver cirrhosis.

Other symptoms may include:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • muscle weakness
  • signs of jaundice (yellowing of whites of your eyes or your skin)

Some people who have hepatitis C may naturally clear the infection with their immune system without treatment. This is called a “self-limiting” infection, but it’s not a guarantee, and only happens for 10 to 15 percent of people who get hepatitis C.

If left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, and even liver cancer. That’s why treatment is recommended for anyone who gets the virus.

Direct-acting antiviral medications are available to treat hepatitis C. Antivirals aim to slow or stop the virus from multiplying, giving your immune system time to respond. This treatment typically consists of 8-12 weeks of taking medicine in an oral tablet form. These treatments work for 90 percent of people with the virus.

While you are taking medication for hepatitis C, your doctor will likely advise you to get plenty of rest while your body works to clear the infection.

The importance of timely treatment

The introduction of antiviral medications — which can effectively cure the virus — has been a game-changer in treating hepatitis C.

Seeking care and taking your treatment regimen seriously is essential to managing a hepatitis C infection, and preventing complications. Always take your medication as directed by your doctor, and attend follow-up appointments.

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There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. However, you can get vaccinated for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

Prevention strategies include:

  • knowing your risk factors
  • understanding how hepatitis C is spread
  • avoiding situations where you could be exposed to blood from a person who has hepatitis C
  • if using IV drugs, using clean equipment or ceasing drug use
  • practicing safe sex

You can get hepatitis C more than once. Just because you have had the virus and treated it successfully does not mean that you won’t contract it again. There are several subtypes of the virus, so you can’t assume you are immune to hepatitis C altogether.

Screening can also help limit the spread of hepatitis C. The CDC recommends regular hepatitis C testing for people who are considered at higher risk for the virus.

Hepatitis C is commonly spread through intravenous (IV) drug use. It can also spread more rarely by other activities involving blood contact, such as unprotected sex, blood transfusions, or contaminated tattooing and piercing equipment.

Many people who have hepatitis C don’t have symptoms and are unaware they have the virus. This is why knowing your risk factors, how the virus spreads, and getting hepatitis screenings are important. If you believe you have symptoms of hepatitis C, or test positive for the virus, it’s important to seek treatment right away.

Safe, effective, and fast-acting antiviral medication is available to help your body handle a hepatitis C infection, and decrease your risk of serious complications. Together we can work to get transmission rates down and protect ourselves and others.