More than 3 million Americans have a long-term infection from the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Anyone who has this disease can give it to someone else through blood and other bodily fluids.
Once you've learned what situations make you likely to catch it, though, you can take steps to protect yourself or get diagnosed and treated.
Who’s at Risk for Hepatitis C?
The odds are higher that you’ll get hepatitis C if you:
- Had a blood transfusion before 1992. A screening test for HCV went into use that year. Before then, this was the main cause of most new cases in the U.S. With routine blood screening for HCV and improvements in the test in mid-1992, transfusion-related hepatitis C has virtually disappeared.
- Use needles to take illegal drugs. This is one of the most common ways to get hep C. Up to 80% of new users get the disease within 6 to 12 months.
- Snort cocaine. People who share straws or other tools to inhale this drug raise their risk.
- Work around blood or needles. Doctors, nurses, and people in the lab get hepatitis C more often than others. They’re more likely to come in contact with blood and get accidental needle sticks.
- Are on dialysis. You can get the disease from equipment that isn’t properly cleaned or should have been thrown away but was reused.
- Have a risky sex life. If you have more than one partner or sleep with people who have sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV, you’re more likely to get hep C than people who don’t.
- Have a spouse or partner who has it, or care for someone who does. Being in close daily contact with an infected person puts you at risk.
- Have body piercings or tattoos. Equipment and supplies can be infected with HCV, but this type of infection doesn’t happen often. To be on the safe side, make sure all tools are sterile or disposable, even the tattoo ink.
- Were born to a mother with hepatitis C. Moms can pass the disease to babies, but it doesn’t happen all the time. If the mother has HIV and hepatitis C, there’s more of a chance the baby will get infected.
Are or have been in jail or prison. Hepatitis spreads easily when people share things that pierce the skin, like:
- Needles or other methods to inject drugs
- Tattoo equipment
- Piercing equipment
Prisoners can spread hepatitis via sex, too, but this is less common.
Who Should Get Tested?
Some doctors say you should get tested at least once no matter what. Definitely get screened if any of these things apply to you:
- Had a blood transfusion before 1992
- Received blood products for clotting problems before 1987
- Are on kidney dialysis
- Ever used IV drugs
- Have high-risk sex (multiple partners, history of sexually transmitted diseases)
- Live with or care for someone who has HCV
- Were born between 1945 and 1965
- Ever shared tools to snort cocaine
- Were born to a mother with hepatitis C
How to Lower Your Odds of Infection
There’s no effective vaccine against HCV. Take some precautions in high-risk situations. If you’re a health care worker, be careful with blood. If you have sex with more than one partner, use condoms. And if you use drugs, don’t share needles, syringes, or anything that goes up your nose.
Spouses, partners, and others in close contact with people who have hep C should not share toothbrushes and razors. If you have the disease, cover your wounds and throw out blood-soaked bandages, tampons, or pads. Don’t let anyone else in the house touch them.