You may have heard of hepatitis C (HCV or hep C), the potentially deadly virus that causes liver inflammation. HCV often produces no symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage, which makes it hard to know you’ve been infected. However, if you understand the ways in which hep C spreads, you can take precautions to reduce your risk of contracting this virus.

Hepatitis, in general, refers to liver inflammation. Many things can cause liver inflammation, including toxic chemicals, medications and drug or alcohol abuse. These types of hepatitis sometimes clear up on their own and may not even require treatment.

When most people talk about hepatitis, however, they’re talking about an infection caused by the hepatitis virus. Different strains of the hepatitis virus are identified by letters: Hepatitis A, B, C, D and E.

Hepatitis C is a virus that is transmitted person-to-person through contact with blood.

How does hep C spread through blood?

The blood of a person infected with HCV contains the live hepatitis C virus. This means the virus can move from the blood of one person into the blood of another. Merely touching HCV-infected blood will not necessarily cause you to become infected, though. The virus needs to actually get inside your body, not just touch your skin.

That said, the virus can enter your body through small (microscopic) cracks in the skin, through fissures in vaginal or anal tissue — or through almost any opening that allows the virus to directly enter your bloodstream.

In what ways can I get HCV?

Most new cases of HCV infection arise from sharing drug needles. You also can get HCV through:

  • Childbirth (mother-to-baby transmission)

  • Needlestick accident (healthcare providers)

  • Sex with multiple partners, particularly if you engage in rough sex

  • Piercings using contaminated equipment

  • Tattoos using contaminated equipment

  • Getting infected blood in your eye

  • Using bare hands to touch objects saturated with infected blood

  • Sharing the razor of a person infected with HCV

It’s important to note the hepatitis C virus is very hardy. It can survive on objects at room temperature for up to three weeks. It’s not likely you could come into casual contact with a tabletop and pick up HCV, but if a person in your household has the virus you should take precautions to clean-up any blood using a bleach solution.

High-risk groups should get tested.

Some people are more at-risk for contracting HCV than others. Healthcare workers face a higher risk of HCV infection through needlestick accidents than any other group. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people born in the United States between 1946 and 1965 get screened for hep C. Anyone who shares needles or other drug paraphernalia also should consider getting a simple blood test to check for the virus.

Protect yourself from hepatitis C.

The best ways to minimize your chances of becoming infected with HCV include:

  • Not sharing drug needles or syringes

  • Using only reputable piercing and tattoo parlors that have been inspected by the health department

  • Avoiding sharing personal care items like razors

  • Avoiding rough sex with multiple partners

  • Wearing gloves before touching any bloody object

  • Thoroughly cleaning any blood spills with a bleach solution, whether you know the blood to be infectious or not

Once you understand how hepatitis C spreads, you can easily take precautions to avoid becoming infected with this potentially lethal virus.

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