The hepatitis C virus can live outside the body in some circumstances, but it is unusual to contract the virus this way. However, just a small trace of blood can cause a hep C infection.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that damages the liver. A person can contract the virus through contact with blood that contains it.
The illness can vary from mild to life threatening. For some people, the infection is short-lived, and their immune system eliminates the virus within weeks.
Below, learn how long the virus can survive outside the body and how the infection spreads.
Hepatitis C usually spreads through contact with infected blood. Dried blood may carry the active virus, but it would have to enter another person’s bloodstream for infection to occur.
Urine, sweat, and semen do not carry enough of the virus to pass it on. It is possible for a person to develop the infection during sex, but this is rare, unless both partners have bleeding or open wounds or sores.
Because the virus transmits through blood, it would be easy to acquire the infection by sharing needles, but difficult to do so by sharing a living space.
Blood on surfaces
In 2013, scientists found that the hepatitis C virus may survive and remain infectious outside the body for up to 6 weeks at various temperatures. In this investigation, the virus remained active at 39.2°F (4°C) and 71.6°F (22°C).
There could be a risk of transmission if a person with hepatitis C spills a drop of blood on a commonly used surface, such as a tabletop or door handle. More blood is likely to pose more risk of infection.
The researchers noted that the contaminated blood dried naturally within 4 hours, and that this change can make blood spots or drops less noticeable.
However, the infectious quality of the blood fell sharply in the first 6 hours, suggesting that the risk of transmission decreases with time.
At home, wiping surfaces with antiseptics, such as products containing bleach or ethanol, may kill the virus.
In medical settings, healthcare professionals take steps to prevent the transmission of the virus by keeping surfaces and medical equipment sterile.
Blood in needles
The study authors recommend that people who inject drugs opt for syringes with less dead space. Using a syringe with a fixed needle may further reduce the risk.
Common ways of transmitting hepatitis C involve:
- sharing unsterilized syringes or needles, such as when injecting drugs
- sustaining an injury from a needle or other sharp object that has come into contact with infected blood
- passing the virus from mother to baby during pregnancy or childbirth
Less often, a person acquires the virus by:
- sharing personal care items such as razors or toothbrushes, which could have come into contact with blood
- having sexual contact with a person who has hepatitis C
- having a tattoo in an unhygienic, unregulated setting
People most at risk of developing hepatitis C:
- have a history of injecting drugs
- received donated blood or organs before 1992
- were born to mothers with the infection
- work in healthcare and have had needlestick injuries
- have HIV or AIDS
Anyone who may have been exposed to the virus should consult a doctor, who will likely request a blood test.
Misunderstandings about hepatitis C are common.
A person can only contract the virus if infected blood enters their bloodstream.
The virus cannot spread through:
- sneezing or coughing
- sharing utensils
- sharing foods or drinks
- breastfeeding, unless the nipples are cracked or bleeding
- holding hands or hugging
A person cannot acquire hepatitis C from a piercing or tattoo if the artist uses sterile equipment. It is important to visit licensed, regulated facilities.
Doctors do not consider hepatitis C to be a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is possible to transmit it during sex, but the risk is low.
The likelihood of contracting the infection during sex is higher for people who:
- have multiple partners
- engage in rough sex
- have an STI
- have HIV
- have sex while menstruating
- have a genital sore or another open wound
- share sex toys that have been used anally or may have blood on them
- engage in fisting without protection
The risk of passing on hepatitis C through commonplace daily contact is very low.
People who have the virus can reduce the chances of transmitting it by:
- covering cuts and grazes with dressings
- disposing carefully of any bloody items
- using a disinfectant, such as a bleach solution, on any surfaces that have contained blood
- washing the hands thoroughly after coming into contact with their own blood, such as after cleaning a wound
Overall, it is a good idea for everyone to wash their hands after touching their own blood or anyone else’s.
If possible, use gloves when helping someone who is bleeding and carefully dispose of any protective items after dealing with the injury.
If a person in a household has hepatitis C, it may be a good idea to keep the following supplies at hand, in the event of an injury that involves bleeding:
- disposable gloves
- paper or other disposable towels
- waterproof dressings
- trash bags for the separate disposal of contaminated items
The hepatitis C virus spreads through contact with blood.
The virus can remain active outside the body for up to 6 weeks in some circumstances, and possibly longer in syringes.
Ways of reducing the risk of exposure include:
- promptly cleaning up any spilled blood and disinfecting the area
- never sharing needles or personal care items such as razors
- disposing of sharps and other medical equipment appropriately
- wearing gloves when helping people who are bleeding
Anyone who suspects that they have been exposed to hepatitis C should consult a doctor, who will likely order a blood test.