Hepatitis C (Hep C) is a virus carried in the blood that infects the liver. Hep C is spread through direct blood to blood contact. Unlike the fragile HIV virus, hep C is a very strong virus that can easily live outside the body for days, weeks, even months. Dried blood is also capable of passing the virus.
One of the highest risks for contracting hep C is sharing equipment like needles, spoons or cookers for injecting drugs. Shared equipment like straws and pipes for snorting or smoking drugs can also transmit hep C.
Any activity that involves blood to blood contact is a possible risk for hep C. This includes more common activities such as: sharing personal hygiene items including razors, clippers, nail scissors or toothbrushes; shared or improperly sterilized piercing or tattooing equipment; and unprotected sex.
You can prevent spreading or contracting hep C by:
- Using your own drug equipment (e.g. needles, syringes, straws, pipes, cookers, water, spoons and ties)
- Not sharing personal care items (e.g. razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes)
- Cleaning blood spills using universal precautions (e.g. wear gloves)
- Using condoms, gloves and dental dams especially during higher risk sexual activity (e.g. anal sex or rough sex)
- Professional and properly sterilized piercing and tattooing practices and equipment (e.g. needles, guns, inkpots, sterile surfaces)
Testing for hep C requires two tests. The first test is a blood test that looks for hep C antibodies in your body. If this test comes back positive you will have another blood test called an RNA test. The RNA test looks for and measures active virus in the blood. The RNA test will also test for hep C genotype to find out which of six strains of hep C you have (this is a factor when considering treatment).
Hep C treatment varies depending on which strain of hep C you have. It can take up to a year of treatment for your body to clear the hep C virus. Hep C treatment does take a long time and can have unpleasant side effects, but it can be necessary to avoid major liver damage.
HIV + Hep C Co-infection
Approximately 20% of Canadians living with HIV are also living with hep C. Co-infection presents additional health challenges for people living with HIV. The most important thing for those people living with both viruses is to have access to knowledgeable health care professionals. Talk to your health care provider about how to manage care and treatment to ensure the best health outcomes for you.
For more information on Hep C visit CATIE