What causes hepatitis C and how is it spread?
Hepatitis C is caused by infection with the hepatitis C virus. The virus is spread from person to person through contact with blood. People who use intravenous (IV) drugs can get hepatitis C when they share needles with someone who has the virus. Health care workers (such as nurses, lab technicians, and doctors) can get these infections if they are accidentally stuck with a needle that was used on an infected patient. You are also at a higher risk if you got a blood transfusion or an organ transplant before 1992 (improvements in blood-screening technology were made in 1992).
Hepatitis C can't be spread unless a person has direct contact with infected blood. This means a person who has hepatitis C can't pass the virus to others through casual contact such as sneezing, coughing, shaking hands, hugging, kissing, sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses, swimming in a pool, using public toilets, or touching doorknobs.
I've never used IV drugs or been stuck with a dirty needle. How did I get hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is usually spread through direct contact with the blood of a person who has the disease. It can also be transmitted by needles used for tattooing or body piercing. In rare cases, hepatitis C can be passed from a mother to her unborn baby. This virus can be transmitted through sex, sharing razors or toothbrushes, although these occurrences are also rare. Many times, the cause of hepatitis C is never found.
Could I give hepatitis C to someone else?
Yes, once you have hepatitis C, you can always give it to someone else. If you have hepatitis C, you cannot donate blood. You should avoid sharing personal items like razors and toothbrushes, although it is very rare to pass hepatitis C in these ways. Always use a condom when you have sex. If you have hepatitis C, your sexual partners should be tested to see if they also have it.
Talk to your doctor first if you want to have children. The virus isn't spread easily from a mother to her unborn baby, but it is possible so you need to take precautions. However, if you're trying to have a baby, do not have sex during your menstrual cycle, because the hepatitis C virus spreads more easily in menstrual blood.
Hepatitis C: Part II. Prevention Counseling and Medical Evaluation by LA Moyer, R.N., EE Mast, M.D., M.P.H., and MJ Alter, Ph.D. (American Family Physician January 15, 1999, http://www.aafp.org/afp/990115ap/349.html)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff