What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Infection with the virus causes liver inflammation and can cause liver disease.
How do you get hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is transmitted from contact with infected blood. You can get infected if even a small amount of infected blood gets into your blood stream. Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs can transmit hepatitis C. People also get hepatitis C from needle sticks and sharps injuries in healthcare settings.
It’s also possible to transmit hepatitis C by sharing toothbrushes, razors, or tattoo and piercing equipment.
More and more gay & bi men who have HIV are getting hepatitis C, even though historically, sexual activity was thought of as a low-risk activity for transmission. Some of these cases might be from sharing injection equipment, but it seems that most are due to sexual transmission.
Hepatitis C transmitted during sex usually happens during condomless anal sex. Risk of transmission goes up with any sexual activity that damages the lining of the anus—such as fisting, sex sessions that last a long time or rough sex. Group sex, party drug use before sex and using unwashed sex toys can also put you at risk of hepatitis C if you’re exposed to blood or you have breaks in your skin.
The hepatitis C virus also lives in semen, but whether or not this adds to the risk of transmitting hepatitis C during condomless anal sex is unknown.
What are the symptoms or signs of hepatitis C infection?
A lot of people with hepatitis C won’t experience any symptoms. Other people may get flu-like symptoms, nausea, or abdominal pain pretty soon after getting infected. During the first 2 to 6 months after getting infected, about one in four people clear the virus from their body on their own. Others go on to develop a chronic hepatitis C infection, which can result in cirrhosis and liver cancer after many years.
How do I get tested for hepatitis C?
A combination of blood tests is used to diagnose hepatitis C.. If you’re living with HIV, you should have a hepatitis C test at least once a year. Testing more frequently may be recommended for HIV-positive individuals who are sharing drug equipment, have sexual activity that might case trauma or breaks in tissue, or having sex without condoms.
If you have hepatitis C now or have had it in the past, you have hepatitis C antibodies in your blood. But even if your body clears the infection on its own, you could get re-infected if you come into contact with the virus again. You don’t develop immunity to the hepatitis C virus (unlike hepatitis A and hepatitis B).
For people who don’t clear the virus on their own, the infection will be monitored with liver function tests.
For more testing information, you can find free and low-cost testing for both STDs and HIV at gettested.cdc.gov.
Can hepatitis C be treated?
There are newer treatments now available for hepatitis C that can clear the virus from your body and prevent the virus from causing cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, liver cancer or liver failure. These new treatments are highly effective, with limited side-effects, even for people who are infected with HIV. Most people can be cured in 8 to 12 weeks.
Some people find complementary therapies and lifestyle changes to be helpful in managing hepatitis C symptoms.
Treatment options for people who are coinfected with HIV and hepatitis C can be more complicated. Your doctor will be able to tell you more about your treatment options. Talk to your doctor about your treatment options.
How can hepatitis C be prevented?
There isn’t a vaccine you can get to prevent hepatitis C infection.
Here’s what you can do to reduce the likelihood that you’ll get hepatitis C:
- Don’t share injection equipment like needles, syringes, swabs, spoons, filters, water or tourniquets. Always use new injection equipment;
- Use condoms and water- or silicon-based lube during anal sex, especially if there is blood or other STIs;
- Wear gloves and use water- or silicon-based lube during fisting;
- Don’t share sex toys with sex partners. Or, put a condom over insertive sex toys and change them between different partners;
- Don’t share personal items like toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers, or nail scissors;
- Make sure body artists use new and sterile equipment if you get tattoos, body piercings or other body art; and,
- Wear disposable gloves if you give someone first aid or are cleaning up blood or other body fluids.
Hepatitis C & HIV co-infection
People living with HIV are more likely to have hepatitis C than people who are HIV-negative. This might be because behaviors that expose a person to HIV might also expose them to hepatitis C.
A person co-infected with hepatitis C and HIV:
- May have more difficulty getting an accurate hepatitis C test result (i.e., may be more likely to get a false-negative or indeterminate test reading);
- May have a higher concentration of the hepatitis C virus in their body fluids;
- May have higher HIV viral loads but probably won’t experience faster HIV disease progression;
- Can safely treat both infections. Should have their liver enzymes monitored regularly since HIV medications can cause liver inflammation or damage.
Adapted from Strut