A diagnosis of hepatitis C can leave you confused, worried, and even ashamed. But for many, these difficult feelings may stem from common misconceptions about the virus. Facts can get muddled when you’re talking about a condition as complex as hepatitis C, which infects the liver and can lead to long-term health problems if left untreated. That’s why we went to the experts to bust these harmful myths and get accurate info so you can take on hep C treatment with confidence.
Myth #1: It’s Easy to Spread Hepatitis C
If you have hepatitis C, you may be anxious about the possibility of transmitting the virus to someone else. The good news is that it’s really hard to contract this disease without coming into contact with an infected person’s blood, says Rena Fox, M.D., an internist and hepatitis specialist at UCSF Health and a professor of general internal medicine at the University of California San Francisco. “Hepatitis C is in body fluids other than blood, but it’s harder to pass it without blood exchange,” she explains.
That means things like shaking hands, kissing, and hugging are perfectly safe, says John Goff, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and member of the American Liver Foundation’s National Medical Advisory Committee. “Many people worry about transmission when first diagnosed,” he says. “For example, a lot of baby boomers with hepatitis C are grandparents, and they worry about giving it to their grandchildren—but you can still hug your grandkids and be a normal grandparent.”
Still, you may want to take certain precautions around those closest to you—for example, some people avoid sharing things that may have their blood on them, like toothbrushes or nail clippers, Dr. Goff says.
Myth #2: Hepatitis C Is Usually Transmitted During Sex
Hepatitis C is a virus spread through blood-to-blood contact—but sex is not the main way this happens. “Rarely it can be transmitted sexually, but it’s very hard for heterosexual sex to be a source of transmission,” Dr. Goff says. For men who have sex with men, it’s a slightly different story—the risk of bleeding is somewhat higher, especially if one partner has HIV, Dr. Fox says.
So while the infection can be transmitted sexually, the odds are pretty low. Using a condom can provide extra peace of mind, since condoms are the best way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
Myth #3: There’s a Vaccine for Hepatitis C
Were you surprised about your hepatitis C diagnosis—thinking you must have gotten a vaccine for that? “A lot of people believe there is a vaccine for hepatitis C when there is not—that’s a misconception,” explains Dr. Fox. It’s easy to confuse it with other hepatitis strains—A and B—which do have vaccines. So if A and B do, why not hep C? “This virus is so quick to mutate that it’s hard to get a vaccine,” Dr. Goff explains. That’s why the best hep C prevention is all about avoiding shared needles and other high-risk behaviors that could expose you to infected blood.
Myth #4: Drug Use Causes Hepatitis C
Not true—but there is a link. “The most common way hepatitis C is transmitted today is through needle sharing for drug use,” Dr. Fox says. Cases of hep C have started rising again with the opioid epidemic, as addicts lose access to their prescription Rx and start substituting with heroin, leading to dangerous needle sharing.
“There is a focus on reaching younger people using heroin to try to get them to use clean needles,” Dr. Goff says. While this doesn’t solve the drug problem, he acknowledges, it’s an important step toward not compounding the issue with hepatitis C. You can find a needle and syringe exchange program near you by searching the directory on the North American Syringe Exchange Network website.
Myth #5: Alcohol Use Leads to Hepatitis C
Some people falsely believe that hepatitis C is the result of drinking too much. This is false, Dr. Fox says, but alcohol can make the disease worse if you do contract it. “People who drink alcohol heavily and have hepatitis C will have more significant liver damage than someone with hepatitis C who doesn’t drink a lot of alcohol,” she explains. So if you have been diagnosed with hep C and you drink regularly, your doctor will likely have a chat with you about cutting back. “Any patient with hepatitis C should minimize their alcohol use so you’re not adding fuel to the fire,” she says.
Myth #6: Only “Bad” People Get Hepatitis C
If you’re feeling shame around your hepatitis C diagnosis, let’s review: First of all, you don’t need to be engaging in tons of risky behaviors to have hep C. “People from all walks of life get it,” Dr. Fox says. “People have gotten hepatitis C through accidental needle sticks in hospitals, through tattoos, through sharing razors in high-risk settings, or without any behavior of their own doing.”
Even if you did get hep C through a high-risk behavior, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Let’s face it—we’re all human, and that in itself comes with risks. Passing a value judgement on your worth as a person based on whether or not you shared a needle with someone is plain silly—and you’d tell that to a friend who was in your shoes right now, right? What matters is taking steps to take care of yourself moving forward.
Myth #7: Hepatitis C Is No Big Deal
While it’s true that treatments for hepatitis C are better than ever, it’s still not something to be taken lightly. “The truth is, the infection has variable outcomes,” says Dr. Fox. On the one hand, about 25% of people find their body clears the infection on its own. But for others, it can lead to life-threatening health problems like cancer and liver failure.
That’s why getting the right treatment is a must. In the past, the only existing treatment had poor results and came with some serious risks, Dr. Fox says. But today’s direct acting antivirals (DAAs) have a 95% or higher cure rate, she says. And don’t worry—DAAs aren’t something you’ll have to take for the rest of your life: You’ll be able to finish the pills in as little as 8 weeks with few potential side effects.
Myth #8: Most People Can’t Afford Hepatitis C Treatment
“When DAAs first came on the market, they really drew attention for having prices of $1,000 per tablet, but that’s never the price seen by the patient,” Dr. Fox explains. “Even the price to insurance companies has improved because of competition among different pharmaceutical companies.”
That said, they’re not the cheapest drugs in the world. If you’re worried about being able to afford your hep C treatment, talk with your healthcare provider—there may be a solution they can help you find. “Between insurance and pharmaceutical company programs, it’s very rare that we can’t figure out how to get someone treated,” Dr. Goff says. “The myth is ‘it’s so expensive, I can’t afford it,’ but today, there’s hardly anybody who can’t afford it.” The American Liver Foundation also has a list of resources on financial assistance, including information on pharmaceutical patient assistance programs.
Bottom line? It’s time to toss your misconceptions about hepatitis C. Now more than ever, better meds and safer health practices mean it’s a condition that’s hard to spread and easy to treat. This is one disease one you can manage like a pro—when you’re armed with the facts.