The common misconception is that hepatitis C can be passed on from one person to another through a simple sneeze or cough, or casual physical contact, such as holding hands. But that is simply not true. Hepatitis C is contagious, yet it is not transmitted in the way that most people believe it is.
Hepatitis C Can Spread Through Infected Blood
You can get hepatitis C if blood from a person who has this illness or carries the virus makes contact with your blood. This is why blood transfusion is one of the most common methods in which the virus spreads.
The CDC classifies hepatitis C as a transfusion-transmitted infection (TTI).1 However, the risk of HCV spreading through blood transfusions has significantly decreased since 1992, due to better blood screening procedures in the U.S.2
Nevertheless, there are other media by which hepatitis can rapidly spread. One is through the use of IV drugs. According to a 2009 study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases,3 injection drug users (IDUs) account for a significant portion of hepatitis C infections worldwide.
In fact, 90 percent of new HCV infections globally (54 percent in the U.S., 90 percent in Australia and 72 percent in Canada) come from injection drug use. What’s more, the study noted the majority of chronic hepatitis C infections in developed countries come from injection drug use.
Aside from sharing needles, other methods that can cause this disease to spread include:4
• Unsanitary tattoos
• Surgical or diagnostic instruments
• Organ transplants
• Sexual contact (although the risk is very low)
While many think that hepatitis C is a contagious illness that can spread via sexual intercourse, this actually occurs very rarely.5 One study found that HCV is transmitted in only 1 out of every 190,000 instances of sexual contact.6
However, there are factors that can increase a person’s risk of acquiring this infection through intercourse, such as:7
• Being HIV-positive
• Having multiple sexual partners
• Having another sexually transmitted infection (STI)
• Engaging in rough sexual intercourse
• Not using condoms or dental dams, or using them incorrectly
Other Less Common Ways the Virus Is Transmitted
Hepatitis C may be transmitted through contact with an infected person’s saliva or semen, but this is very rare,8 and the most risky medium is still infected blood. Keep in mind, though, that using an infected person’s personal items, particularly those that may have been in contact with his or her blood, can put you at risk. So if you know someone with this illness, do not share or use his razor or toothbrush.9
Unfortunately, hepatitis C may spread among a household — however, this occurs very infrequently. Usually, it spreads because of direct, through-the-skin exposure to the infected household member’s blood.10
Mortality Risk: Can You Die From Hepatitis C?
Between 70 and 90 percent of infected people do not clear the virus and become chronic carriers.11 This can be potentially problematic, because chronic hepatitis C infection can lead to other severe and life-threatening liver problems, namely:12
• Cirrhosis — This occurs when excessive scar tissue builds up (fibrosis) and dominates the liver. If you have cirrhosis, the hard scar tissue replaces soft and healthy normal tissue, causing the liver to stop functioning properly. It usually takes 20 to 30 years for liver damage to lead to liver cirrhosis.
• Liver cancer — When certain cells in your liver reproduce faster than necessary, tumors and other problems may arise, eventually leading to liver cancer. Once your hepatitis C has worsened to the point of cirrhosis, then you have an extremely high risk of liver cancer.
• Liver failure — This advanced liver disease means the organ is so severely damaged and no longer functions normally. Yellow skin and eyes, also known as jaundice, fluid in the legs or abdomen (ascites), stomach and esophageal bleeding (varices) and confusion or delirium (hepatic encephalopathy) are the usual symptoms of liver failure. Usually, having this condition means you need a liver transplant in order to survive.
Unfortunately, over 350,000 people die from hepatitis C-related liver diseases each year.13 To prevent any of these complications from arising, it is important to address this illness as soon as you have confirmed your diagnosis. This will help you come up with an effective treatment plan to stop the disease from wreaking havoc on your body.