9 Ways to Keep Your Relationship Safe From Hep C

by Gina Shaw Health Writer

Hepatitis C, a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus, is a serious condition that can lead to many health problems, including liver damage, liver failure, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it spreads when someone comes into contact with the blood of a person who’s already infected with the virus. So, if you have hep C, as it’s commonly known, how can you protect your partner from getting it, too? Do you need to take special precautions?

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Single or Partnered, What’s My First Step?

One word: treatment. You can’t transmit hep C if you don’t have it anymore—and, these days, hep C is almost always curable with modern medications. “Most people with hepatitis C have over a 95% chance of a cure with one of several DAA treatment options available,” says Norah Terrault, M.D., professor of medicine and the Neil Kaplowitz chair in liver diseases at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of California-San Francisco. And, while treatments from a decade or more ago could last about a year, newer options usually take just 8 to 12 weeks, start to finish.

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Should I Tell the Person I’m Dating?

Yes, you probably should. But what if you can’t get treated due to costs (or other reasons), or you’re right in the middle of treatment? Dating is hard enough without having to tell someone new that you have hep C, right? Think again. Dr. Terrault says you don’t have to bring it up on the first date, but it is important to start a relationship with honesty—starting with the truth about your health. “Although hepatitis C is not easily transmitted via sex, especially in a monogamous heterosexual relationship, it is important to discuss with a new sex partner.”

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Should My Partner Get Tested, Too?

Maybe. Hep C is a bloodborne virus, which means your partner (and others in your life) are only at risk for contracting the virus from you if they’re exposed to your blood in some way—through sex, or sharing needles or even razors. (More on those risks in a moment.) If you don’t think that has occurred, testing for your partner may not be urgent, but the CDC recommends that all adults get tested for hep C at least once in their lifetimes. So, now just might be a good opportunity to encourage your partner to follow that recommendation.

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Is Physical Affection Risky?

Not generally. Although hep C can be transmitted through sex (see our next slide), that’s not the primary way it spreads. “The risk of spreading hep C via sexual contact is very low, particularly if you are in a monogamous relationship,” says Imtiaz Alam, M.D., medical director of the Austin Hepatitis Center in Austin, TX, and a clinical associate professor of medicine at Texas A & M University. In addition, kissing, hugging, cuddling, and other non-sexual ways of being affectionate and intimate do not spread hep C, he adds.

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Should We Always Use Condoms?

That all depends. If you have multiple partners, you should use a barrier method to prevent transmission, but for monogamous partners, even the CDC does not say you need to routinely use condoms to prevent spreading hep C. “The HIV virus is more easily transmitted through sex than hep C,” says Dr. Terrault. But if you have sex during your period, or you engage in anal sex, which is more likely to cause bleeding, the risk of contracting hep C is higher, the Mayo Clinic notes. In that case (or if either of you also has HIV, which increases the chance of spreading hep C)—then you should definitely use condoms—every time you have sex.

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Are There Other Risky Behaviors to Avoid?

Definitely. Today, most people who become infected with hep C get it through sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment, according to the CDC. If you or your partner use injection drugs, be safe: Never share needles. Harm reduction programs like the North America Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN) can help you find a safe needle exchange program near you. The CDC also warns that hep C can spread from getting tattoos or body piercings in unregulated facilities. If you want body art, make sure you’re in a licensed place that uses new, sterilized equipment—every time.

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We Moved in Together. Can We Share Our Stuff?

Not personal stuff, no. There are some common household items that you shouldn’t share if one of you has hep C, including anything that might get blood on it—even in small amounts. This means no sharing of razors, toothbrushes (ew, anyway!), glucose monitors if you both have diabetes, and nail clippers, Dr. Terrault says. It’s difficult for these items to spread hep C, but it’s theoretically possible, so better safe than sorry. It’s also a good idea to keep these things covered and away from the other person’s hygiene items, the CDC advises.

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What About Eating the Same Food?

Go ahead (if that’s your thing). “Most normal household activities can’t spread hep C,” says Dr. Alam. “Eating from the same dishes, drinking from the same glasses, and sharing food or water do not spread hep C.” he adds. Hep C is also not a respiratory virus, so it can’t be spread by things like coughing or sneezing. (But do cover up your mouth when you do either, anyway, for the good of your relationship!)

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What If I Cut Myself? How Do I Clean Up?

Carefully. If you cut yourself, or have some other kind of accident that causes bleeding, be sure to clean up everything thoroughly using bleach or a cleanser with bleach in it, the Hepatitis C Trust advises. A study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases found bleach to be 100% effective at wiping out the virus on surfaces. Next, dispose of rags, tissues, bandages, and anything else you’ve used to stop the flow of blood in a sealed plastic bag. (By the way, the same approach goes for used sanitary pads and tampons—you don’t have to bleach them, but do dispose of them safely.)

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Hep C and Your Relationship

Beyond taking these fairly easy precautions to avoid spreading the disease, you don’t need to stress too much about it. (Put that energy into following your treatment plan instead.) Many people have few symptoms unless their hep C is advanced, so it might not have much impact, at all. If your disease is advanced, you may experience fatigue that might get in the way of activities you want to do together, so your partner will need to be understanding. “But there’s no reason someone with hepatitis C can’t date or be in a long-term relationship,” says Dr. Alam.

Gina Shaw
Meet Our Writer
Gina Shaw

Gina Shaw, a graduate of Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins, has been writing about health and medicine for nearly 25 years. She has contributed to publications ranging from WebMD, Redbook, and Bon Appetit to Neurology Today and Brain & Life. Her 2010 book, Having Children After Cancer, was the first guide to building a family after a cancer diagnosis. Gina lives in Montclair, NJ, with her husband and three children. When she’s not writing, she can be found reading, skiing, or planning her family’s next trip.