Hepatitis C is an inflammation of the liver which can present in both an acute and a chronic phase. The inflammation is caused by the hepatitis C virus or HCV.
Hepatitis C is spread primarily through direct blood-blood contact. While it is technically possible to acquire hepatitis C through unsafe sexual intercourse, the chances of that happening are very low. There have been documented cases where hepatitis C has spread through sexual intercourse, but it is not the primary transmission route.
However, it is important to understand that certain risk behaviors may increase, or even decrease, the risk of HCV transmission through sexual intercourse.
Is Hepatitis C an STD?
An STD, or a sexually transmitted disease, is precise, as the name suggests: a disease that spreads primarily through sexual contact. As mentioned before, the primary mode of transmission for the hepatitis C virus is through direct blood-to-blood contact. The high incidence of hepatitis C among IV drug users is evidence supporting this claim. However, while it is highly unlikely, it is still possible for people to acquire hepatitis C through sex.
Certain high-risk behaviors increase an individual’s risk of acquiring HCV through sexual contact. These high-risk behaviors include:
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Frequently engaging in anal sex
- Men who have sex with men (MSM)
- Having other sexually transmitted diseases
Needless to say that not using safe sex methods, such as using condoms, further increases the risk of acquiring HCV through sex. Men who have sex with other men (MSM) have been reported to transmit HCV infections.
While theoretically possible, transmitting HCV through sexual contact is very low. Only the people with the aforementioned high-risk behaviors are at a slightly increased risk of acquiring HCV through sexual contact.
How to lower your chances of acquiring HCV through sex?
While the risk is minimal, it is still best to prevent acquiring an HCV infection through sexual contact in the first place. The best way to protect yourself from hepatitis C is to eliminate high-risk sexual behaviors from your life.
Here are some of the measures you can take to minimize your risk of acquiring HCV through sexual contact:
- Avoid engaging in sexual contact with multiple people
- Avoid getting sexually active with frequent new partners
- Use new condoms before every sexual contact
- Get tested for hepatitis C regularly
- Get a screening test as recommended by your doctor
- Get tested for other STDs regularly as well
Is Hepatitis C preventable?
While there is no vaccination available for hepatitis C, it is most certainly a preventable infection. Preventing an HCV infection involves eliminating high-risk behaviors that put an individual at a greater risk of acquiring the hepatitis C virus.
The most important risk factors that increase your chances of getting infected with HCV include:
- Sharing injecting needles
- Sharing personal hygiene products
- Getting tattoos and piercings
- Accidental exposure to contaminated blood in healthcare settings
Analyzing and decreasing your risk factors can virtually eliminate your risk of hepatitis C infection.
If you frequently engage in IV drug use, ensure that you do not, under any circumstance, share injecting needles with anyone. Make sure to keep your personal hygiene products off-limits as well.
When getting a tattoo or a piercing, ensure that the parlor has an official license and that their products and equipment are sterilized.
If you are a healthcare worker, ensure that you protect yourself from any medical waste and accidental needle pricks when taking blood samples. Discard the needles you use properly and with care to avoid potential HCV transmission to yourself and other people.
Can you get re-infected with Hepatitis C?
Acquiring hepatitis C once does not provide a person with lifelong immunity against the virus, even if the infection was completely resolved. Moreover, there is no effective vaccine available against hepatitis C instead for hepatitis A and B. Therefore, yes, a person can get re-infected with hepatitis C.
It is also possible to get re-infected with other types of hepatitis viruses. It is also possible to get a co-infection with more than one type of hepatitis virus. Co-infections can be much more dangerous and spontaneous than infections caused by a single strain of the hepatitis virus.
It is advisable to get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B as effective vaccinations are available for both infections.
Will I have lasting liver damage if I have hepatitis?
Most cases of acute hepatitis C resolve on their own. The acute phase of the disease lasts for about a couple of weeks to a month, and one of the two outcomes emerges at the end of the acute phase. Either the infection resolves completely, or it subsides momentarily while staying active for months to come, resulting in what we know as the chronic phase of hepatitis C.
Usually, there is minimal to no liver damage after the acute phase of the disease. However, sometimes patients develop fulminant hepatic failure, characterized by rapid deterioration of liver function and encephalopathy.
Liver damage can be much more extensive if the infection turns chronic. Chronic hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver. A cirrhotic liver results from extensive fibrosis where scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue and thus greatly decreases the liver's ability to perform its normal function.
Cirrhosis can also lead to liver failure and liver cancer, known as hepatocellular carcinoma.
It is usually much more common to have lasting liver damage with a chronic hepatitis C infection as compared to acute hepatitis. However, most acute infections do not progress to a chronic phase thanks to the modern Direct-Acting Antiviral (DAA) drugs.
In any case, your doctor will evaluate the extent of liver damage once the acute phase of hepatitis C is resolved.
Does having an STD increase my risk of acquiring Hepatitis C?
Having HIV, Syphilis, Gonorrhea, and other such sexually transmitted infections increase the risk of developing hepatitis C for any individual. This is because having concurrent STDs drastically lowers an individual's immune capabilities. Naturally lowered immune defenses, thus, allow hepatitis C infections to occur much more readily and rapidly.
Therefore, in order to minimize your chances of acquiring hepatitis C infections, it is essential that you get tested for sexually transmitted diseases regularly.