The hepatitis C virus can pass from one person to another and cause health problems, including liver disease.
Hepatitis C is also known as “hep C.” It is caused by a viral infection, and some people refer to the virus as “HCV.”
Hepatitis C is contagious, and it can spread when blood containing the virus enters another person’s bloodstream. This could happen when sharing needles, for example.
Overall, the risk of transmitting hepatitis C during any type of sexual activity, including oral sex, is low.
However, transmission could happen during oral sex if, for example, one person with hepatitis C has cracked and bleeding lips, and their partner has an open wound on their genitals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hepatitis C does not spread through kissing, hugging, sharing utensils, coughing, sneezing, or sharing food or water.
The virus also does not pass through saliva.
Below, learn more about the risks of transmitting or contracting hepatitis C during sex, as well as about testing and treatment.
Hepatitis C is a viral health condition.
It can damage liver cells, causing inflammation and scarring, known as fibrosis. It can also cause cirrhosis, a progressive disease in which scar tissue gradually replaces healthy liver tissue.
Hepatitis C can also lead to liver cancer and liver failure.
The CDC estimate that around 2.4 million people in the United States had hepatitis C in 2016.
There is a low risk of contracting hepatitis C through sexual activity, although it is possible.
It may be more common among men who have sex with men, people who have multiple sex partners, and people who have HIV.
However, doctors do know that the virus passes through blood, not saliva.
While the chances of transmitting the virus during sex are low, this could occur if there is a break in the skin of both partners, and they are not using barrier protection, such as a condom or dental dam.
Specific risk factors for sexual transmission may include:
The hepatitis C virus lives in the blood, semen, and some other bodily fluids. Transmission occurs when particles of fluid that contains the virus enter another person’s bloodstream.
According to Avert, it is unlikely but not impossible
Experts have found the virus in the semen of some men, but it is unclear how this affects the risk of infection. For this reason, experts recommend using condoms during sex as a precaution.
Factors that increase the risk of transmission include:
- being born to a mother who has hepatitis C
- breastfeeding, if the nipples are cracked or bleeding
- being born between 1945 and 1965, when rates of the condition were high
- sharing razors, toothbrushes, or grooming clippers
- having the skin pierced during clinical practice
- getting a tattoo or piercing in unregulated or unsanitary conditions
- injecting drugs
- taking drugs through the nose
- having an organ transplant from a person with hepatitis C
While the risk of transmission during sex is relatively low, it increases if a person:
- has rough sex
- has a sexually transmitted infection
- does not use protection, such as a condom or dental dam
Many people with hepatitis C do not realize it — only around 20–30% of people with the condition develop symptoms.
Any symptoms usually appear 2–12 weeks after the initial infection, but they can take up to 26 weeks to emerge.
Depending on whether the infection is short-term or persistent, symptoms can include:
- a lack of appetite
- a fever
- abdominal pain
- tenderness of the liver area
- darker urine
- gray stool
- joint or muscle pain
- jaundice, which refers to yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
Most people who experience symptoms only do so when the condition has progressed to cause liver damage.
A person may only discover that they have hepatitis C after a routine blood test or blood donation.
Anyone who believes that they have been exposed to the virus and anyone who experiences symptoms should consult a doctor.
Experts recommend testing for people with any of the risk factors mentioned above and people who believe that they have had exposure.
If a person has concerns about possible exposure, they should ask their doctor about screening.
A doctor diagnoses hepatitis C after interpreting the results of blood tests.
The first test checks for antibodies that are present in people with the infection. This test is known as the hepatitis C antibody test or anti-HCV test.
If the test for antibodies is positive, the doctor suggests a further test to determine whether the virus is currently active. This test is called an RNA or polymerase chain reaction test.
If both results are positive, the doctor may refer the person to a liver specialist. They may recommend other blood tests and a liver biopsy to determine the level of damage and whether cirrhosis or liver cancer has developed.
A person who has cleared the infection in the past may receive a false-positive result on an antibody test. An RNA test can confirm whether the virus is currently active.
Meanwhile, a person who has contracted the virus very recently may receive a negative antibody test result, if they have yet to develop a detectable number of antibodies.
A range of factors can help a person and their doctor determine the best option for treatment.
Some people do not receive treatment and clear the virus; about 15–25% of hepatitis C infections resolve without treatment. It is not clear why some people eliminate the virus and others do not.
If a person requires treatment and does not receive it, the infection will become chronic, or persistent.
Treatment involves prescription antiviral medications.
Also, a person with an active hepatitis C infection can support their recovery by:
- getting enough rest
- drinking plenty of fluids
- not drinking alcohol
- eating a healthful diet
If hepatitis C becomes chronic, a doctor may recommend additional treatments.
Doctors consider hepatitis C to be a manageable condition. New antiviral drugs have proven effective at fighting the virus, and lifestyle interventions can support recovery.
Doctors can help develop treatment plans that suit each person’s needs.
Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against hepatitis C, but preventive measures can reduce the risk of infection.
The risk of transmission during sex, including oral sex, appears to be low. However, it is important to adopt strategies to reduce this risk, such as using barrier protection.
To manage hepatitis C, it is important to make healthful lifestyle choices and work closely with a doctor.