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How is hepatitis C spread?

The hepatitis C virus is transmitted through direct contact with infected blood.1 Hepatitis C usually evolves slowly, but may progress more quickly than commonly thought.1,2

Blood transfusion and blood products (especially before 1992)

In most countries blood and blood products are now routinely screened for the hepatitis C virus. However, this screening did not begin until 1992. Therefore, if you received a blood transfusion prior to 1992, there is a risk that you may have been exposed to the virus3 and should talk to your doctor.

People are not always aware that they have received a blood transfusion. It could have occurred during:

  • Transplant surgery
  • Major surgery
  • A stay in intensive care
  • Uncontrolled bleeding (haemorrhage)

If you have undergone any of the above procedures in countries where screening for hepatitis C and other blood-borne infections is not routine, you should make an appointment to talk to your doctor.

 
Drug use

Injected drug use is a common method of hepatitis C transmission. Anyone who has ever shared a needle or syringe, or anything used to prepare the drug, could have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus.3

Using cocaine is also a risk factor.4 This is because cocaine can damage the nasal passage, leading to nosebleeds.  Shared straws and bank notes can become contaminated with blood and so transmit the virus.

 
Other routes of transmission

Transmission can occur when equipment contaminated with the virus is used during any procedure where the skin is broken. This can be a problem in the developing world where resources are limited and syringes are often re-used. Transmission of the hepatitis C virus has been known to occur through:1,3

  • Haemodialysis
  • Acupuncture
  • Tattooing or piercing
  • Shaving
  • Dentistry

The virus can pass from mother to baby during pregnancy. Around 5% of women with hepatitis C will transmit the virus to their child.5

Sexual transmission of hepatitis C is uncommon.3

  1. World Health Organization, Hepatitis C. 2002. Available at: http://www.who.int/csr/disease/hepatitis/whocdscsrlyo2003/
    en/index.html
  2. Poynard T et al. Lancet 1997; 349: 825-832.
  3. Villena EZ. Annals of Hepatology 2006;5(Suppl. 1):S12–S14.
  4. Alter MJ. Epidemiology of hepatitis C. Hepatology 1997; 26 (3 Suppl 1): 62S-65S.
  5. Newell ML, Pembrey L. Drugs Today (Barc) 2002; 38(5): 321-337.

 

 

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