• Hep C is spread when your blood comes into contact with infected blood.
  • Hep C is NOT spread through saliva, touching or sharing bathrooms.
  • There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

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

You cannot get it through touching, kissing, coughing or sneezing, sharing food, or sharing bathrooms or toilets. 

To protect yourself from getting hepatitis C, you should practise good blood safety. This means avoiding ways that your blood can come into contact with someone else’s blood. There are different ways this can happen and some are riskier than others. If you have been at risk, you should get tested for hepatitis C

What are the ways you can get hepatitis 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.1

You can access safe injecting equipment and disposal services through Needle and Syringe Programs (NSPs), which are located all around Australia. You can find your nearest NSP at aivl.org.au/nsp/

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 carries a high risk of blood‑to-blood contact.2

Tattooing and body piercing
moderate to low risk

Tattooing and body piercing can be a risk because they use needles that can spread infected blood. It is extremely unlikely that you would get hepatitis 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 backyard tattooing, there is a much higher risk.3

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 hepatitis C or another blood borne virus.1 The rate of hepatitis virus 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. You can check that they know the Code of Practice for Skin Penetration Procedures and can talk about it with you.

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 hepatitis 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.3

If you are thinking about getting pregnant and have hepatitis 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.1

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.2

Sexual activity 
low risk

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

There is a higher risk of getting hepatitis 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.3 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.1

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.5

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.6

Breastfeeding 
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.7

Download this factsheet


MORE INFORMATION

For more information on how hepatitis C is transmitted contact the National Hepatitis Infoline on 1800 437 222.

Use the following links to find out more about hepatitis C

About hepatitis C

Symptoms of hepatitis C

Testing for hepatitis C

Hepatitis C cures

 

REFERENCES

  1. Victoria State Government. (2018, September). Hepatitis C. Retrieved from Better Health Channel: www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/hepatitis-c/
  2. CATIE. (2019). Hepatitis C: An in-depth guide. Retrieved from CATIE: www.catie.ca/en/practical-guides/hepc-in-depth/what-hep-c/what-is-risky
  3. ASHM. Indications for HCV testing. Retrieved from HCV testing portal: testingportal.ashm.org.au/hcv/indications-for-hcv-testing
  4. Henderson, D. (2003). Managing Occupational Risks for Hepatitis C Transmission in the Health Care Setting. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 546-568.
  5. 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
  6. Victoria State Government. (2014, March). Needlestick injury. Retrieved from Better Health Channel: www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/needlestick-injury
  7. RANZCOG. (2016, July). Management of Hepatitis C in pregnancy. Retrieved from RANZCOG: www.ranzcog.edu.au/Statements-Guidelines

Page updated: 30 August 2019