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Modes of transmission: How do you get hepatitis C?

Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • During the 1970s and 1980s, one of the most common routes of HCV transmission was through blood transfusions, with rates of post-transfusion hepatitis ranging from 8% to 10%
  • HCV is rarely passed from a pregnant woman to her baby, with only 6 out of 100 infants born to HCV-positive mothers becoming infected with the virus

One of the most common misconceptions about hepatitis C is that if a person infected with it sneezes or coughs in front of you, then the virus can transfer to you. But this is not the case, because hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus, meaning it primarily spreads when an infected person’s blood enters the bloodstream of another person.1

Before 1992, the most common routes of HCV infection was from transmission through blood transfusions or from getting an organ transplant. One study notes that during the 1980s, there was a 20% risk of becoming infected with hepatitis C.2 Those who took blood products to address coagulation issues before 1987 were also at risk.3

Upon the implementation of effective blood screening tests, these rates significantly went down. In 2002, the risk of becoming infected has become less than 0.03% for every unit of blood transfused.4

Today, however, there are still numerous ways to get hepatitis C. What’s alarming about this disease is that virtually any source of blood, including blood-stained products like used razors or needles, can potentially carry the virus.5

Common methods of how hepatitis C is transmitted

Today, recreational drug use — particularly those that are injected in the bloodstream — is the most common method for this virus to spread. According to a 2017 Medscape article, use of cocaine, heroin and other intravenous drugs, is responsible for about 60% of all identified cases of hepatitis C in the U.S.

Tattoos, piercings and even acupuncture are also found to contribute to the spread of the virus. If you recently had any of these procedures performed in an unsanitary establishment, you should have yourself screened for this disease.6

People who work in health care settings, such as doctors, nurses and those who facilitate blood transfusions, may have a high risk of getting this illness, as they often come in contact with infected blood, and may be at risk of accidental needle sticks.7 Remember that the virus can live on surfaces and disposal containers, so properly handling all materials that touched blood samples is crucial to preventing the spread of this disease.

Sharing razors, toothbrushes and other personal hygiene items that may have touched an infected person’s blood may also put you at risk of this infection,8 so if you know someone who has this illness, refrain from sharing their personal care products.

Can you get hepatitis C from sexual intercourse?

While there is a chance for hepatitis C virus to be passed on during sex, the risk is substantially low. The risk becomes higher if either you or your partner, or both of you, have HIV or another STD. Having several partners instead of being in a monogamous relationship may also increase your risk. Other factors include:9

  • Having rough sex that may cause tears or fissures in your skin
  • Doing anal intercourse
  • Having intercourse while on your period

Casual contact, however, where no exposure to an infected person’s blood, can have very little risk of transmitting HCV. This includes kissing, hugging or holding hands.10

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Mother-to-infant HCV transmission is relatively low

Being born to a mother with hepatitis C can increase your risk, but it does not necessarily mean that you automatically acquire the virus. HCV is rarely passed from a pregnant woman to her baby, with only 6 out of 100 infants born to HCV-positive mothers becoming infected with the virus. However, this risk increases if the mother has both HIV infection and HCV.11

There is also very little risk of passing on the virus through breastfeeding, unless the mother’s nipples have cracks or open sores.12 If this happens, you should stop breastfeeding until the wounds have completely healed.


Hepatitis C: Introduction

What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C in Pregnancy

How Do You Get Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C Duration

Is Hepatitis C Contagious?

Hepatitis C Causes

Hepatitis C Types

Hepatitis C Symptoms

Hepatitis C Treatment

Hepatitis C Prevention

Hepatitis C Diet

Hepatitis C FAQ

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