If you've just been diagnosed with hepatitis C, you may worry about passing on the virus to a loved one. If you've had the disease for a long time without knowing it, you may dwell on every little incident in the past where you might have accidentally exposed a family member to the disease.
"Worrying about passing on the disease is pretty common," says Alan Franciscus, executive director of the Hepatitis C Support Project in San Francisco. "I see a lot of people who are HCV positive who are more worried about transmitting the virus than their loved ones are."
Many people mistakenly think that hepatitis means viral hepatitis, and that all forms of hepatitis are contagious. Actually, the word hepatitis is a catch-all term that refers to any inflammation of the liver -- the irritation or swelling of liver cells from any cause.
Hepatitis can be acute (inflammation of the liver that lasts less than six months) or chronic (inflammation of the liver that lasts more than six months) and has many different causes. It can be caused by a group of viruses known...
It's important to remember that hepatitis C isn't easy to catch. If you take a few precautions, it's almost impossible to pass the disease on to someone else.
How Hepatitis C Is -- and Isn't -- Spread
Hepatitis C is spread only through exposure to an infected person's blood. It cannot be spread through:
Breastfeeding (unless nipples are cracked or bleeding)
Sharing utensils or glasses
Sharing food and water
As you can see, everyday contact is not risky. "The transmission rate between people in a household is probably just a little above zero," says Howard J. Worman, MD, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.
However, hepatitis C can be spread through blood. So follow these common precautions:
Don't share razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, or anything else that could have your blood on it. Cover any open wounds or sores with bandages.
Carefully dispose of tampons, sanitary napkins, tissues, used bandages, and anything else that might have your blood on it.
If you're using injected street drugs, get into a treatment program. At the very least, don't share needles or equipment with anyone else.
Don't donate blood, organs, tissue, or semen.
What About Sex With Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C can spread through sexual intercourse, but it's rare. And it's extremely rare among monogamous couples. In fact, the CDC considers the risk of sexual transmission between monogamous couples so low that it doesn't even recommend using condoms. Also, there's no evidence that hepatitis C is spread by oral sex.
However, if you have multiple partners you should take precautions. Using condoms will not only protect your partners from hepatitis C, but they will also protect you from other dangerous diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis B.
Can I Pass Hepatitis C to My Baby?
It is possible for a pregnant mother to spread the virus to her baby, but the risk is low. The CDC believes the transmission rate from mother to child is about 5%. The virus is spread at birth, and there's no way to reduce the risk.
There is no evidence that normal breastfeeding poses a risk. However, if a mother's nipples are cracked or bleeding, her child could conceivably become infected from her blood.
Encouraging Others to Get Tested for Hepatitis C
While the odds of passing on the hepatitis C virus are low, you should still tell anyone at risk that you have hepatitis C. You should tell sexual partners, spouses, and family members. Your infection may be difficult to discuss, but anyone at potential risk must know. That way, they can get tested and treated if needed.
Paul Berk, MD, professor of medicine and emeritus chief of the division of liver disease, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; chairman of the board, American Liver Foundation.
Alan Franciscus, executive director, Hepatitis C Support Project and editor-in-chief of HCV Advocate, San Francisco.
Thelma King Thiel, chair and CEO, Hepatitis Foundation International.
David Thomas, MD, professor of medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore.
Howard J. Worman, MD, associate professor of medicine and anatomy and cell biology, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, New York City.
The American Gastroenterological Association.
The Hepatitis Foundation International.
The HCV Advocate.
The National Institute of Allergic and Infectious Diseases.
WebMD Medical Reference: "Health Guide A-Z: Hepatitis C," "Newly Diagnosed: Hepatitis C."