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How Hepatitis C Is Transmitted (and How It Isn’t)

Hepatitis C is a contagious infection that can lead to severe liver damage. Learn about hepatitis C transmission and how to reduce the risk factors. Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is bloodborne. The virus is transmitted when someone comes in contact with infected blood through shared drug injection equipment, pregnancy, childbirth, sexual

  • Posted on 25th May, 2022 21:45 PM
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Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is bloodborne. The virus is transmitted when someone comes in contact with infected blood through shared drug injection equipment, pregnancy, childbirth, sexual contact, or blood transfusions/organ transplants.

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Hepatitis C can cause acute or chronic diseases. Acute HCV cases usually result in asymptomatic disease and do not typically cause life-threatening conditions. Approximately 30% of people who have an acute HCV infection clear the virus from their liver in six months without treatment.

Approximately 70% of infected individuals develop chronic HCV cases, which can result in life-threatening conditions, such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer. Many people with chronic HCV have no symptoms or only vague symptoms until liver damage is advanced.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates half of the people with chronic HCV don't know they have the infection. This article will discuss how hepatitis C is transmitted, how it isn't transmitted, and common risk factors.

Prevalence of HCV

In a 2013-2016 survey, the CDC estimated that approximately 2.4 million Americans (1% of the population) were living with hepatitis C, and this number is rising due to the opioid crisis. Of the affected 2.4 million individuals, it was also estimated that about half of them may be unaware that they have the infection.

How Do You Get Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a very common virus among drug injection users. However, you can acquire the virus if you come in contact with the blood of a person living with hepatitis C (blood-to-blood contact). The list below describes the most common ways this can occur.

Shared Drug Equipment

Sharing or reusing needles and syringes can retain small amounts of infected blood that can be transmitted to the next person who uses them.

Pregnancy and Birth

The CDC estimates that a pregnant person who tests positive for hepatitis C has a 5.8% chance of transmitting the infection to their baby. This risk increases if you have an underlying health condition, particularly an HIV infection. It's recommended that a person be tested for HCV during each pregnancy.

Sexual Contact

While hepatitis C can be transmitted through sexual contact, this is not a common transmission route. However, if you already have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or have multiple sexual partners, you are at a greater risk of contracting hepatitis C.

Unregulated Tattoos and Body Piercings

Tattoos and body piercings use needles that pierce through your skin. Each piercing brings more opportunities for the needle to come in contact with infected blood. If you get a tattoo or body piercing using the same needle (unsterilized) that's been exposed to infected blood, it puts you at greater risk of contracting hepatitis C.

Shared Hygiene Items

You can get hepatitis C by sharing hygiene items that may have already been exposed to blood, such as razors and toothbrushes.

Blood Transfusions and Organ Transplants

Before June 1992 when HCV screening of blood supply was mandatory, hepatitis C was commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. It is now very rare to contract hepatitis C through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

Unsterilized Medical Equipment

Any unsterilized medical equipment that has been contaminated with blood containing HCV puts you at risk of getting hepatitis C. If you use medical devices or receive medical injections at home, make sure to sterilize all products before and after use to prevent infection.

Ways It Isn't Transmitted

Because hepatitis C is spread through blood-to-blood contact, you cannot get hepatitis C through the following ways:

  • Hugging
  • Kissing
  • Respiratory droplets (coughing or sneezing)
  • Food or water

What Are the Chances of Getting Hep C Sexually?

Hepatitis C can be transmitted through sexual activity, but it is uncommon. It is estimated that among heterosexual couples, the risk of getting hepatitis C through sexual activity is approximately 1 in 380,000 individuals. However, you are at a greater risk of getting hepatitis C if you have a sexually transmitted infection or have sex with multiple partners.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for hepatitis C include the following:

  • If you are an injection drug user and frequently share needles and syringes that may be contaminated with HCV
  • If you've had a blood transfusion before June 1992 when HCV tests were first introduced as a requirement for blood screening
  • If you have multiple sexual partners and/or have condomless sex
  • If you have a sexually transmitted infection

Hepatitis C Reinfection

Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine to protect you from getting hepatitis C. If you've had a hepatitis C infection and were able to recover from it successfully, it is possible to become reinfected with the virus if you are exposed to it again.

Can People With Hep C Be Blood Donors?

You are ruled out as a blood donor if you have had hepatitis C, even if you have no symptoms. All blood donations in the U.S. are tested for hepatitis C antibodies, which will indicate whether the person has had HCV in the past. This is essential to prevent the transmission of HCV to the blood recipients.

Why It's Important to Get Tested

Because hepatitis C is a highly infectious virus, the CDC recommends that adults 18 years or older get tested for hepatitis C at least once in their lifetime. This is also true for pregnant people during each pregnancy.

To test whether you have a hepatitis C infection, your healthcare provider will perform a hepatitis C antibody (anti-HCV) test to determine whether you have antibodies that were created in response to the infection.

If your test is positive, your healthcare provider will also perform a hepatitis C RNA test, which accurately determines whether you have a current infection.

Once it is determined you have an HCV infection, your healthcare provider will recommend the best course of treatment. For most people, (unless pregnant, breastfeeding, or under age 3) treatment with antiviral drugs will be started. There are effective treatments that can cure HCV and prevent liver damage.

Summary

Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus, which is bloodborne. The virus is spread when someone comes in contact with infected blood, which can occur through shared drug equipment, pregnancy and childbirth, sexual contact, or blood transfusions/organ transplants.

The common risk factors for hepatitis C include if you are an injection drug user and frequently share needles and syringes that may be contaminated with HCV. Or if you've had a blood transfusion before June 1992 when HCV tests were first introduced as a requirement for blood screening, and if you have multiple sexual partners and/or engage in condomless sex.

There is currently no vaccine to protect you from getting hepatitis C. If you've had a hepatitis C infection and were able to recover from it successfully, it is possible to become reinfected with the virus if you are exposed to it again.

A Word From Verywell

Living with hepatitis C can affect you physically and emotionally. Fortunately, there's always help. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best treatment options for your condition and how to best manage stress and anxiety.

Your healthcare provider can also walk you through how to best manage your symptoms and live a life as close to normal as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can hepatitis C be spread through saliva?

    You can get hepatitis C through direct contact with blood from someone with the infection. As such, the virus does not spread through saliva.

  • Is there a vaccine for hep C?

    There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. To protect yourself from acquiring the virus, avoid behaviors that put you at risk, particularly sharing and injecting needles and syringes.

  • Is there a cure for hep C?

    Antiviral medications can treat hepatitis C infections. Over 90% of people with HCV can be cured with treatment. However, you can be reinfected with the virus after recovering from the infection.

  • How long is hepatitis C contagious?

    Hepatitis C can remain contagious for a few weeks to lifelong.

  • Which type of hepatitis is the most contagious?

    Hepatitis B, the most common liver infection in the world, is about five to 10 times more contagious than hepatitis C.

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