Hepatitis C is an inflammatory liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus. Read on to assess your individual risk level and learn the steps you can take to prevent transmission.
The saying “prevention is the best medicine” may sound trite, but as far as hepatitis C is concerned, it’s true.
“Hepatitis C is a contagious disease that spreads easily,” says Monte R. Swarup, MD, OB-GYN, founder of HPD Rx. “Left untreated, it can lead to an illness that’s quite serious.” For example, liver damage, liver failure, and liver cancer.
Unlike hepatitis A and B, there’s no hepatitis C vaccine. That means you can’t protect yourself by getting a shot.
To further complicate matters, hepatitis C is usually asymptomatic.
“Hepatitis C can be sneaky,” says family nurse practitioner Erin Flynn, DNP, with telehealth service Favor. “Roughly
When symptoms do occur, they’re often nonspecific, says Flynn. These may include:
The hepatitis C virus is mainly transmitted through blood.
Small amounts of the virus have been detected in semen, vaginal secretions, and other bodily fluids, but it’s unclear how infectious the virus actually is in fluids other than blood.
According to the New York State Department of Health, the following groups are the most at risk:
- people who have previously shared or currently share equipment to prepare or inject subcutaneous medications and intravenous substances
- people who received blood transfusions, blood products, or organ donations before hepatitis screening was introduced in June 1992
- infants who have a birthing parent with hepatitis C
- healthcare professionals who experience an accidental needle stick at work
Groups that have a slightly increased risk include:
- people who share straws and other equipment to snort cocaine, ketamine, or other substances
- people who have condomless sex with a person who has hepatitis C or whose STI status is unknown
- people who share toothbrushes, razors, trimmers, and other intimate items with a person who has hepatitis C or whose STI status is unknown
- people who get tattoos or piercings in an unsterile environment
“One of the higher risk activities for contracting hepatitis C is sharing needles, such as for injection drug use,” says family nurse practitioner Adrienne Ton, APRN-CNP, with telehealth service TBD Health.
Using a new needle every time is the best way to reduce your risk. Yes, every time! If a new needle (or spoon or straw) isn’t available, do what you can to clean what you have.
You may be able to find a free or lower cost needle and syringe exchange program in your area. The North America Syringe Exchange Network’s online directory can help.
To learn more about safer injection drug use, check out the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition’s website.
To find a nearby support group or treatment center, head to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline. It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7. Text 435748 with your ZIP code or call 800-662-4357.
It’s important to remember that any sharp — aka a medical instrument that comes into contact with bodily fluids — can serve as a vector.
This includes lancets, needles, syringes, and other supplies used to:
- treat anaphylaxis
- monitor blood sugar levels
- inject insulin and gender affirming hormones
- assist with conception
If you see a healthcare professional for routine care, they can advise you on how to best use and dispose of your supplies. You can also consult with a pharmacist at your local drugstore, such as Walgreens and CVS.
“If you get a tattoo with a needle that wasn’t disinfected, you’re at risk for getting hepatitis C,” says Swarup. The same goes for piercings and other body modifications.
As attractive as your friend’s free stick-and-poke offer may be, working with a licensed professional in a reputable studio is best.
As a rule of thumb, a worthwhile artist and studio will:
- prominently display their credentials
- discuss their cleaning and sterilization procedures
- open needles and other supplies in front of you and dispose of them immediately after use
Still have questions? Our tattoo guide can help.
In other words, only use intimate grooming items that belong to you, and avoid letting other people use yours.
This advice isn’t as obvious as it might sound. One 2019 survey from the Oral Health Foundation and Philips, for example, found that 26% of British respondents were willing to share their toothbrushes with someone else.
“There’s a small but present risk of getting hepatitis C by sharing toothbrushes,” says Ton.
If one of you has a cut in your mouth — from flossing, brushing aggressively, or a violent tortilla chip — the blood residue on the brush can transmit the virus, she says.
Jennifer Veltman, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with Loma Linda University Medical Center, adds that clippers, trimmers, and other tools can also be a source of contamination.
That means your bestie’s blade is off-limits, no matter how frustrating that missed patch of hair may be.
Most people with a hepatitis C infection don’t have any symptoms. Those who do usually assume they have the flu or common cold, says Veltman.
That’s why it’s important to talk with a healthcare professional if you’re concerned about potential exposure.
Depending on your situation, you might say:
- “I recently used a shared needle and would like to be tested for hepatitis C.”
- “I administer my medication at home with a syringe, and I have difficulty keeping track of what’s been used. I know unsterilized needles can transmit hepatitis C, so I’d like to get tested.”
- “I don’t think I’ve ever been tested for hepatitis C. Can you add this lab to my next STI screen?”
A healthcare professional can make a diagnosis, if appropriate, and advise you on any next steps.
The hepatitis C virus is primarily transmitted through blood and possibly other bodily fluids. The virus is curable, but it can cause long-term damage if left untreated for an extended period. Adding a few prevention practices into your routine can help reduce your risk.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.