Myths about how hep C is spread

Hepatitis C (Hep C) is NOT passed on through touching, kissing or hugging someone else, or by sneezing or coughing. It is not spread by sharing food, crockery, cutlery, towels, bathrooms or toilets. Insects like mosquitoes or fleas do not transmit hep C.

How do you get hep C?

Hep C is a virus that lives in the blood, and is transmitted when infected blood from one person gets into someone else’s blood stream. Even invisible (microscopic) amounts of blood can transmit hep C.

How you can get hep C

Sharing or reusing other people’s needles, syringes and injecting equipment

Very high to high risk

The highest risk for contracting hep C comes from sharing any needles and syringes with other people. Even if you injected just once a long while ago you may have been at risk of getting hep C. This includes sharing needles and syringes when using drugs, steroids or anything else.

Aside from needles and syringes, all equipment used to prepare for the injection can spread hep C. This includes spoons, filters, water, tourniquets and swabs. Even tiny amounts of blood that cannot be seen by the naked eye can contain the virus [i].

Ritualistic practices that involve blood

High risk

Traditional practices using razor blades, knives or needles can be a risk for spreading the hep C virus. ‘Blood brother’ rituals involve direct blood-to-blood contact and therefore carry a very high risk of infection if one person has the hep C virus. Sharing instruments for branding or self-harming also carry a high risk of blood to-blood contact [ii].

Tattooing and body piercing

Moderate to low risk

Tattooing and body piercing can be a risk because they use needles so can spread infected blood. It is extremely unlikely that you would get hep C at a professional tattooist in Australia because they use effective infection control procedures and sterile equipment. However, in situations where it might be hard to sterilise equipment properly, such as prison and amateur tattooing, there is a much higher risk [iii].

Having tattoos or piercings overseas, in countries where rules about health standards may be poor or not exist, or by workers who may not have good knowledge about sterilisation and infection control can increase your risk of getting hep C or another blood borne virus [i]. The rate of hep C among the people living there may also be higher in developing countries, so the risk of equipment coming into contact with infected blood also increases.

Make sure body artists are operating out of clean, established business premises and are registered with the local council.

Transmission at birth

Moderate to low risk

There is about a 5% chance that a baby will get hep C during childbirth if the mother has hep C. The risk is the same for vaginal births and caesarean births. Fathers who are hep C-positive cannot pass the virus on to their babies either when the baby is conceived, or during pregnancy [iii].

If you are thinking about getting pregnant and have hep C, you should talk to your doctor about getting cured first.

Medical care overseas or blood transfusions in Australia prior to 1990

Moderate to low risk

In some developing countries, the blood used for transfusions is not properly screened for hep C. Surgical equipment may also not be well sterilised, which means there’s a risk it could transmit hep C.

In Australia, the blood used for transfusions has been screened for hep C since 1990 and is very safe. There is a very low risk in Australia that some procedures involving blood may be performed by workers who do not have a good understanding of sterile procedure and infection control [i].

Sharing of drug snorting equipment

Low risk

When people use a straw or other device for sniffing a drug, the lining inside the nose can easily be damaged and small amounts of blood can get onto the straw. If the straw is passed to another person to use, this blood (which may have the virus in it) can get in the second person’s bloodstream if the straw damages their nasal lining as well [ii].

Sexual activity

Low risk

Transmission of hep C through sex is unlikely. Hep C is not classified as a sexually transmissible infection (STI), but there is a possibility of hep C transmission if there are cuts, open wounds, or blood present during sex.

There is a higher risk of getting hep C through unprotected anal sex, especially for people with HIV. This is because the anus lining can tear easily, allowing the virus to get into the bloodstream [iii]. Using a condom should protect you from getting hep C.

Sharing of household items

Very low risk

It is very rare for hep C to be transmitted through the use of household items, but it is best not to share razor blades, tweezers and toothbrushes. Brushing your teeth can cause bleeding gums, so sharing your toothbrush can cause blood-to-blood contact. Razor blades and tweezers can also possibly lead to blood-to-blood contact between people [i].

Needle-stick injuries

Very low risk

A needle-stick injury is an accidental injury from a needle containing another person’s blood. It is more likely to happen to medical staff in hospitals or surgeries, but can also happen to members of the public who come across used syringes that have been thrown away in public places. The chance of catching hep C this way is possible, but the risk is extremely low [iv]. If you do get a needle-stick injury, you should wash the source of the wound with soap and water (or alcohol-based rub if soap and water are not available) and see a doctor immediately [v].

Breastfeeding. Extremely low risk

Extremely low risk

Breastfeeding does not spread hep C, and the virus is not transmitted through breast milk. However, because hep C is spread by blood, if your nipples are cracked and bleeding, you should stop nursing temporarily on that breast and consult a midwife. Mothers are strongly encouraged to breastfeed whether or not they have hep C [vi].

Last review: September 2019

 

REFERENCES

i. Victoria State Government. (2018, September). Hepatitis C. Retrieved from Better Health Channel: www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/hepatitis-c/

ii. CATIE. (2019). Hepatitis C: An in-depth guide. Retrieved from CATIE: www.catie.ca/en/practical-guides/hepc-in-depth/what-hepc/what-is-risky

iii. ASHM. Indications for HCV testing. Retrieved from HCV testing portal: testingportal.ashm.org.au/hcv/indications-for-hcv-testing

iv. Department of Health. (2005, June). Hazards associated with needle and syringe disposal. Retrieved from Department of Health: www.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/illicit-pubs-needle-audit-review-toc~illicit-pubs-needle-audit-review-lit~illicit-pubs-needle-audit-review-lit-haz  

v. Victoria State Government. (2014, March). Needlestick injury. Retrieved from Better Health Channel: www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/needlestick-injury

vi. RANZCOG. (2016, July). Management of Hepatitis C in pregnancy. Retrieved from RANZCOG: www.ranzcog.edu.au/Statements-Guidelines