Why Did I Get Hep C?
A hepatitis C diagnosis can come as a surprise, leaving you wondering how—and why—you got infected in the first place. First, there’s good news to keep in mind: Even if you’ve contracted hep C, the virus is curable about 95% of the time, per the World Health Organization (WHO). But because hep C will come right back if you keep doing whatever caused you to become infected in the first place, it’s a good idea to understand the factors that may have raised your risk of getting hep C. Here’s everything you need to know.
Hep C Is a Bloodborne Disease
It can be distressing to learn you have hep C, especially if you don’t know how or when you were infected—and many people don’t, says John Goff, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and member of the American Liver Foundation’s National Medical Advisory Committee. It helps to learn how hep C can even spread in the first place: “It is transmitted primarily through blood-to-blood contact,” says Rena Fox, M.D., an internist and hepatitis specialist at UCSF Health and a professor of general internal medicine at UC San Francisco. Let’s go over some of the risk factors you may already know about—plus, a few surprising ones.
Risk Factor: Sharing Needles
Sharing equipment for injection drug use is a risk factor for hep C. “Unfortunately, the most common way hepatitis C is transmitted today is through needle sharing for drug use,” says Dr. Fox. When people become addicted to prescription opiates and then lose access to those drugs, they may turn to heroin, she explains, and sharing needles for heroin use is linked to hepatitis C infection. So, if you have a history of drug use, that may have played a role in your infection. And remember—you can get infected more than once, she says, so taking steps to reduce this behavior in the future is wise.
Risk Factor: Using Unsterile Tattoo Instruments
Another risk factor for hepatitis C infection is using unsterile tattoo instruments and body piercings, says Dr. Goff. It’s a big red flag if the facility where you were tattooed or pierced was unlicensed and equipment wasn’t cleaned properly. Before getting a tattoo or piercing, make sure to do your research, recommends the Mayo Clinic. That means asking whether employees are properly trained and licensed according to your state laws and ensuring they wear gloves and use proper equipment (for example, they should remove the needle and tubes from sealed packages before tattooing).
Risk Factor: Sex
While sexual transmission of hepatitis C is fairly uncommon, it is possible that you were infected with hep C in this way—particularly if you’re engaging in sexual activity that results in bleeding, says the WHO. “It’s very hard for heterosexual sex to be a source of transmission,” says Dr. Goff. “Men having sex with men are a higher risk group for getting hepatitis C.” The risk is greater if one partner also has HIV, says Dr. Fox.
Risk Factor: Past Blood Transfusions and Organ Transplants
Some risk factors are even more out of your control. For example, before the year 1992, the blood supply for transfusions and organ transplants wasn’t screened for diseases like hepatitis C, says the CDC—so if you had a transfusion or transplant before then, your risk of hep C was increased, Dr. Fox tells us. Nowadays, though, the risk of getting hep C through blood transfusion and organ transplants is super low, and the American Red Cross doesn’t even accept blood donations from people who have ever had hepatitis C, per the CDC.
Risk Factor: Sharing Certain Personal Items
Sharing things like razors, nail clippers, glucose monitors, or toothbrushes can raise your risk of getting hepatitis C because these items could potentially come into contact with infected blood, according to the CDC. Thankfully, this isn’t a super common route of transmission, but it could theoretically occur, especially if you’ve been living with someone known to have hepatitis C and you’re sharing personal items with them, says Dr. Fox.
Risk Factor: Having Certain Medical Conditions
Having certain medical conditions also increases the chance that you will get hepatitis C, according to the CDC. For example, people with HIV are at an increased risk—again, sexual transmission of hep C is more common if one partner already has HIV, Dr. Fox says. People with chronic kidney disease, for example, have higher rates of hep C than the general population—especially those who have had hemodialysis treatment, per the National Kidney Foundation. Further, people with abnormal levels of the enzyme alanine aminotransferase (which can indicate liver problems) are also more likely to be infected with hep C, according to the CDC.
Risk Factor: Working in Certain Health Care Settings
People who work in health care, public safety, or emergency medical care may also be at increased risk of contracting hepatitis C. Why? Because there is a higher chance that you’ll be exposed to infected blood, says the CDC. For example, Dr. Fox says, “People have gotten hepatitis C through accidental needle sticks in hospitals.” If you do work in a health care setting, make sure to follow safety guidelines and take steps to protect yourself, including wearing gloves when necessary and washing hands properly.
Risk Factor: Birth by a Mother With Hep C
Another reason someone may have hepatitis C is if their biological mother was infected. Yes—even babies can get hep C, which just goes to show once again that there’s no one type of person who contracts this virus. Thankfully, the risk of passing hep C from mother to baby is small—around 5%, per the Society of Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM). How transmission occurs isn’t fully understood, but data show it most often occurs around the time of birth. SMFM recommends health care providers avoid internal fetal monitoring, episiotomy, and prolonged rupture of membranes when managing labor in women with hep C, as these things may increase the risk of transmission to the baby.
The Bottom Line: Anyone Can Get Hep C
Here’s the thing: It’s a myth that only “bad or irresponsible people” get hepatitis C, says Dr. Goff. While it’s true that certain behaviors can increase your risk, it helps to remember that many reasons why people get hepatitis C were out of their control. It’s not your fault that you got this viral infection—life simply happens. “People from all walks of life have hepatitis C,” Dr. Fox reminds us. The important thing is to decide how you’ll best take care of your health moving forward—likely starting with effective hepatitis C treatment.