Hepatitis C affects the liver. People can transmit the virus that causes the disease through blood-to-blood contact.
The hepatitis C virus is blood-borne, meaning that the virus lives in a person’s blood. People can contract the virus by coming into contact with blood that contains it.
This article looks at how the hepatitis C virus spreads, some risk factors, and how to prevent infection.
Hepatitis C can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long lasting). With early diagnosis, however, modern treatments can cure hepatitis C and prevent liver damage.
There are five main types of hepatitis virus, each of which spreads in a different way:
- Hepatitis A spreads through contact with feces that contains the virus or through consuming untreated drinking water.
- Hepatitis B spreads through contact with infected blood, semen, or other bodily fluids.
- Hepatitis C spreads through contact with infected blood.
- Hepatitis D spreads through contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids.
- Hepatitis E spreads through consuming contaminated water or food.
Vaccines can prevent all types of viral hepatitis except for hepatitis C. Avoiding contact with infected blood is the only way to avoid contracting hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus, meaning that a person must come into contact with blood that contains the virus to contract it.
Most new cases of hepatitis C in the U.S. are due to injecting recreational drugs. Transmission can happen when a person with the virus shares needles or contaminated drugs with others.
The hepatitis C virus is very difficult to kill, and even tiny spots of blood that are invisible to the human eye can contain the virus.
People can also contract the virus in healthcare settings through exposure to blood that contains the virus, such as through accidental needlesticks.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common ways for hepatitis C to spread include:
- using injectable drugs
- receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992, which is before regular blood screens took place
- being accidentally poked with a used syringe, which can occur in healthcare settings
- being born to a mother who has hepatitis C
Hepatitis C can also spread through the following actions, though these are less common:
- engaging in sexual contact without using barrier protection, especially contact that may involve blood, such as rough or anal sex
- sharing personal items that may contain blood, such as toothbrushes or razors
- getting a tattoo or piercing from an unregulated provider
Hepatitis C often has no symptoms. This means that a person can contract hepatitis C without knowing it. This makes it easier for them to transmit it to others.
For this reason, it is important that people with a higher risk of coming into contact with the hepatitis C virus know how to avoid contracting and transmitting it.
There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. Avoiding contact with infected blood is the only way to prevent the condition.
The most common way for people to contract hepatitis C is by injecting street drugs. Because of this, the best way to prevent hepatitis C is to avoid injecting.
Treatments can help many people quit. People in the U.S. can call the National Helpline for help with finding treatments.
If a person finds it difficult to stop, they can reduce the risk of contracting hepatitis C by never sharing drug equipment, ensuring a clean, hygienic environment, and always using new equipment, including syringes, ties, alcohol swabs, cottons, and cookers.
People who may come into contact with infected blood, such as healthcare workers and caretakers, should always wash the hands thoroughly with soap and water after any contact, or suspected contact, with blood. They should also wear gloves when touching another person’s blood or open wounds.
People can also reduce their risk by making sure that any tattoo artist or body piercer they visit uses fresh, sterile needles and unopened ink.
The risk of contracting hepatitis C through sexual contact is low. Using barrier protection, such as condoms, reduces the risk of most sexually transmitted infections.
People who have hepatitis C can reduce the risk of transmitting it to others by:
- taking medications called direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) to treat hepatitis C
- covering any cuts or scrapes to prevent other people from coming into contact with the blood
- not donating blood, organs, or semen
- not sharing personal items, such as razors, syringes, toothbrushes, or nail clippers
- informing any new sexual partners of the condition and always using barrier protection during sexual activity
There are many misconceptions about how hepatitis C spreads. People cannot transmit or contract the virus through:
- sneezing or coughing
- hugging or kissing
- holding hands
- sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses
- sharing food or drinks
- sustaining a mosquito bite
Hepatitis C can be acute or chronic. Acute infection occurs during the first 6 months after contracting it, while chronic infections can last a lifetime if the person does not seek treatment.
In many cases, hepatitis C causes no symptoms. This means that people may have the infection without knowing it. Also, it is important to note that people can transmit the virus even if they have no symptoms.
Some symptoms of acute hepatitis C include:
The symptoms of chronic hepatitis C do not usually appear until a person has had the infection for some time.
Most commonly, a person will learn that they have a liver problem after undergoing a blood test for another condition. Their blood test may show an imbalance in their liver enzymes due to some sort of hepatitis in general. However, people who have hepatitis C can still have normal liver enzyme tests.
Signs and symptoms of chronic hepatitis C can include:
- easy bleeding and bruising
- fluid buildup in the abdomen, or ascites
- a jaundiced appearance, or a yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes
- changes in appetite
- itchy skin
- unexpected weight loss
Because many of these symptoms are nonspecific and can occur with any cause of liver inflammation, people may not realize or even consider that they could have hepatitis C.
Doctors recommend that certain groups undergo testing for hepatitis C. These groups include people with symptoms and people who:
- were born between 1945 and 1965
- use drugs intravenously
- have a history of abnormal liver tests or liver diseases
- have HIV
- received treatment with coagulation factor concentrates before 1987
- received a blood product transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- are on long-term hemodialysis
- work in healthcare or public safety and have exposure to needles with hepatitis C virus-contaminated blood
If the blood test identifies antibodies to the hepatitis C virus, a doctor will order further testing to confirm whether or not the person has the active hepatitis C virus.
They will also order tests to look for any changes in the person’s liver functioning.
Early diagnosis and treatment can improve the outlook for hepatitis C. Without treatment, the condition can cause life threatening complications, including cirrhosis (liver scarring), liver failure, and liver cancer.
The outlook for hepatitis C has improved dramatically in recent years. Taking medications called DAAs may be effective for curing hepatitis C.
Modern treatments may involve 8–12 weeks of pills, and these can cure over 90% of cases. Treatments can be expensive, but some insurance plans may cover them. People can speak to their healthcare provider for help with payment.