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How contagious is hepatitis C and how do you prevent it?

Medically reviewed by Sally Chao, MD. Last updated on Sep 1, 2021.

Official answer

by Drugs.com

Hepatitis C is a very contagious virus if you are an injection drug user. It is not nearly as contagious for other people. Because hepatitis is passed from person to person by infected blood, you can prevent hepatitis C by avoiding activities that may expose you to infected blood.

Hepatitis C is not transmitted in the air by close contact like COVID-19 or a cold or flu virus.

  • You can’t get hepatitis C from breathing in droplets of virus sneezed or coughed into the air by an infected person.
  • You can’t get it from infected food or water.
  • You can’t get it from close contact, even hugging.

Hepatitis C is most likely to spread through large and repeated contact with infected blood. In the past, this included people who had a blood transfusion or transplant surgery. Today, that type of spread is very rare due to screening of blood for hepatitis C.

Injection drug use has been the most common way that hepatitis C is spread since the 1970s. For an injection drug user, hepatitis C is about four times more contagious than the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Hepatitis C in injection drug users is highly contagious if needles are shared. The rate of new infections per year seen in studies is 10% to 20% of those who inject. It is estimated that more than 50% of injection drug users have hepatitis C. Injection drug use accounts for about 60% of all hepatitis C infections.

About 20% to 30% of infections come from other causes:

Healthcare workers may contract hepatitis C from blood exposure or a needle stick, but the rate of infection for healthcare workers is the same as in the general population, about 1.8%.

Other less common but possible ways to become infected with hepatitis C include:

  • Having unsafe sex with many partners who have hepatitis C or being a man having sex with a man with hepatitis C.
  • Sharing personal items with a person who has hepatitis C, like a razor or nail clipper or toothbrush
  • Having a tattoo or piercing done by someone not using sterile techniques
  • Having a blood transfusion, organ transplant or receiving blood products before 1992
  • Being born to a mother with hepatitis C

About 10% of infections have an unidentified cause.

Prevention

You can help prevent hepatitis C by preventing exposure to infected blood. Prevention includes:

  • Not injecting drugs
  • Not sharing drug needles or materials
  • Wearing gloves if you come in contact with blood or needles
  • Making sure that a person who gives you a tattoo or piercing is licensed and uses sterile practices
  • Not sharing personal items with other people, like your toothbrush, razor or nail clippers
  • Having safe sex

You cannot prevent hepatitis C with a vaccination. Vaccines are available for hepatitis A and B, but not for hepatitis C. Researchers have been trying to create a vaccine for many years, but have not been successful. Fortunately, they have developed drugs that will usually cure the infection.

Re-infection and long-term complications

Hepatitis C infection can sometimes be cleared by your immune system. This is called acute hepatitis C. But, even after a hepatitis C infection is cleared, you can contract it again.

However, most people will not clear the infection, and they will go on to develop long-term chronic hepatitis C. Untreated hepatitis C can cause severe liver damage leading to cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer.

Screening

Because most people with chronic hepatitis C do not have any symptoms, it is recommended that everyone between the ages of 19 and 79 have a screening blood test for hepatitis C.

References
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Viral Hepatitis. August 2020. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/hcvfaq.htm. [Accessed August 11, 2021].
  2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Viral Hepatitis and Liver Disease. October 2018. Available at: https://www.hepatitis.va.gov/hcv/background/transmission-modes.asp#S1X. [Accessed August 11, 2021].
  3. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Hepatitis C. March 2020. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/liver-disease/viral-hepatitis/hepatitis-c. [Accessed August 10, 2021].

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