Hepatitis C (hep C or HCV) is a disease that damages the liver. It is passed via blood-to-blood contact, so it’s known as a blood-borne infection. Many people with HIV are co-infected with hepatitis C, which puts a strain on the body to cope with both. Hep C is about ten times more infectious than HIV, and it can be passed from person to person in several ways:
- Injection and drug use supplies: One of the most common ways that hep C is transmitted is through sharing drug use equipment, such as needles, cookers, pipes, cotton, water, ties, and swabs. If you’ve ever shared in the past, you could be at risk. Equipment for injection and inhalation can have tiny amounts of blood in it that remain after use. Hep C can survive in syringes for weeks. You could be infected if you come in contact with the blood, either by injecting it directly or getting it in tiny cuts in your nose or throat caused by snorting or smoking. Even a tiny amount of blood you can’t see can cause transmission. This is true for injecting steroids and hormones too. If you’re using, use safely by having your own supplies.
- Pregnancy: Hepatitis C can pass to the developing fetus during pregnancy. The risk is increased with HIV co-infection. If you are pregnant and don’t know your HIV and hep C status, talk to your caregiver about testing. There is no treatment to reduce the risk of hepatitis C transmission during pregnancy, but there are medications that can lower the amount of HIV in the system, which will boost your health overall and lower HIV infection risk. Having a lower risk of transmitting HIV also decreases the risk of transmitting hepatitis C.
- Sex: Having sex with someone who has hepatitis C may put you at risk for transmission if there’s a chance of blood-to-blood contact; having HIV puts you at higher risk. Using condoms, dental dams, and gloves during sex will lower the risk significantly.
- Equipment for tattooing, piercing, or acupuncture: There is a small possibility of infection from infected needles or equipment if it isn’t sterile. The tattoo and piercing industry is big business, and reputable places are very careful about infection risk. They sterilize equipment, use single-use needles, wear gloves, and so on. Ask to see a place’s business licence and certification that they use proper procedures. CATIE has a great list of recommendations to follow for safer tattooing and body art. If you are receiving acupuncture, make sure that that proper infection control procedures are followed and that the needles are single use only.
- Personal care items: Razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers and other personal care items might have tiny bits of blood on them after use, and these can transmit hep C. Use your own personal care items.
The blood supply is not a worry when it comes to hepatitis C transmission. Before 1990, hepatitis C was unknowingly transmitted in health care settings where untested blood products were used. Now screening guidelines for all blood products used in Canada are in place.
For more in-depth information on hep C diagnosis, treatment, and care concerns, visit Pacific Hepatitis C Network.