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How Hepatitis C Spreads

In previous hepatitis C blog posts, we told you about:

Recent events in Pierce County may have caused confusion about hepatitis C testing and how it can spread. We will clarify.

The need for lifelong testing? Not true!

The only people who should be tested for hepatitis C on an ongoing basis are active injection drug users. For everyone else, it’s typically a one and done approach.

If you got tested because you received notification about potential exposure to hepatitis C, you do not need to get tested again. Everyone tested related to the MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital exposure incident got a ribonucleic acid (RNA) test. The test is accurate three weeks after exposure to hepatitis C. This means if you were infected with hepatitis C on a specific date, enough virus would be in your blood for the RNA test to detect it three weeks later. Find test results we updated May 16 from this outbreak.

Infected blood spreads the virus—and that can happen in a variety of ways.

Hepatitis C is spread through blood infected with hepatitis C virus or through body fluids with infected blood. Blood from an infected person has to get into the body of another person. Touching infected blood with unbroken skin will not spread the disease. Always wear latex gloves before touching someone else’s blood.

Sharing needles, syringes, or other drug equipment are the most common ways hepatitis C spreads in the United States. People who inject drugs frequently split and share the drugs with partners or in groups.

In the process of sharing the drugs—not necessarily the needles themselves—the drugs and injection equipment can become contaminated with the blood from other people. People who inject drugs are sometimes surprised when they catch hepatitis C because they never shared a needle or syringe.

But they became exposed in the process of splitting and sharing the drug.

Do you know where that sharp object has been?

Sharing any needles or sharp objects, even if is not related to drug use, can transmit disease. Hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases can spread through:

  • An accidental needle stick in a healthcare setting.
  • Home or prison tattooing.
  • When infection control practices are not adequate in healthcare injections.

If someone has hepatitis C, we tell them not to share personal hygiene items like razors or toothbrushes that could become contaminated with blood. Sharing these items has a low risk of transmission, but it can happen. In this type of transmission, multiple personal items may have been shared. Pinpointing which one transmitted the virus can be difficult. In certain circumstances, the hepatitis C virus can survive for up to three weeks outside the body.

Sex, birth, transfusions and Baby Boomers: The other transmission risk factors.

Other methods of hepatitis C transmission also involve the transfer of blood, though not so directly as injection drug use or sharing needles. A woman with hepatitis C has a small chance of giving the disease to her unborn baby because the baby is exposed to blood during the birth process. Sex can transmit hepatitis C, though this is a very low risk. Again, blood from an infected person would have to enter the other person’s blood for transmission to occur. Some sexual practices might have a higher risk of involving blood. Having a sexually transmitted disease can also increase the risk because of inflamed or torn skin.

Before 1992, the national blood supply was not tested for hepatitis C. Until then, the most common ways the virus spread were:

  • Blood transfusions.
  • Blood products.
  • Organ transplants.

For that reason, people born between 1945 and 1965—Baby Boomers—are five times more likely than the general population to have hepatitis C. In a future blog post, we’ll explain the recommendation for all Baby Boomers to get tested once for hepatitis C. Learn more about the virus and your risk factors.

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