Can You Get Hepatitis C Again? The Chances of Reinfection
Last updated: July 2023
Many people believe that Hepatitis C is a chronic and incurable illness, or an illness that will always lead to cirrhosis of the liver and death. Although this was the initial experience of some of the first patients diagnosed with hepatitis C many years ago, science and medications have come a long way since then. We now have a better understanding of the virus itself, which allows those with a positive diagnosis to be treated–sometimes even before they ever see a symptom of the virus. Others may have seen symptoms but are on a medication regimen that has lowered the person’s viral load.
Is there a cure for hepatitis C?
Even though doctors debate whether to call any low to non-detectable viral load as “cured,” there are some people who once tested positive for hepatitis C and who no longer do. Many doctors will use the word “cured” if your tests show an undetectable viral load three months after your treatment has ended. Some mistakenly believe that if they reach that point, their experience with hepatitis C has ended forever. In fact, re-infection is possible, so this may or may not be true.
Is a cure forever?
Hepatitis C is not like the old wives’ tale about chicken pox or other viruses; having it once and then reaching a non-existent viral load does not mean you are somehow exempt from the possibility of contracting the virus again, nor does it mean that you cannot increase your viral load and begin to again test positive. This is why it is crucial that a person who has had hepatitis C be especially careful in their choices.
Risk factors for re-infection
Those who use intravenous drugs are at a higher risk than most, as there is often an exchange of blood via shared needles, with the effects of the drug(s) potentially impacting whether the user is able to exercise best judgment and safety protocols. This can lead to exposure to blood from another who may have a positive viral load, and that can re-infect someone who has tested negative before that interaction.
Risk factors: alcohol consumption
Another way to test positive again is through the use of alcohol. In a recent study, alcohol was shown to parallel high hepatitis C viral loads. This is because of an increase in a specific protein in the alcohol, which can cause the virus to replicate. That same protein also impacts hepatic inflammation. Simply put, someone with a very low or even an undetectable hepatitis C viral load can increase that load and can further stress an already overworked liver just by consuming alcohol in any dosage. In addition, the molecules in alcohol actually interfere with the medications most people take to combat their hepatitis C infection. This means that drinking can cause your medication(s) to be less effective or even non-effective, and that can result in a positive hepatitis C test, as well as a higher viral load reading than you previously had.
Risk factors: Sex
Lastly, anyone engaging in sexual intercourse should take all possible precautions in order to avoid possibly becoming re-infected via a partner who is positive for hepatitis C. While hepatitis C is only transmitted through blood and not other bodily fluids, it is still possible to contract the virus through sexual contact if there is exposure to infected blood. Those in non-monogamous relationships should consider the benefits of consistent condom use, as well as frequently being tested for sexually transmitted infections, in order to minimize exposure and to monitor their viral load numbers. Anyone in a monogamous relationship might still choose to utilize these precautions in order to protect all partners from any potential exposure risks.
What if I can’t reduce my risk factors?
If you are struggling with an intravenous drug addiction or dependence, it is important to reach out to your local healthcare provider. They can assist you in finding treatment options that you can afford, as well as guiding you through the steps to begin treatment. For those who are not interested in ending their drug use, a local healthcare provider may be able to show you to places where you can exchange your used needles for clean needles. The options vary based on your location.
If you are struggling with alcohol addiction or dependence, it is also important to reach out to your local healthcare provider. They can assist you in assessing your individual treatment needs, as well as referring you to an inpatient or outpatient program that fits your life and your budget. Whether you are interested in quitting drinking or whether you choose to continue to consume alcohol, it is important to let your primary physician know about your alcohol use so s/he can monitor your liver and viral load levels more closely for signs of additional physical stressors that you may not be able to see without test results.
If you want to talk with someone about your sexual practices and to discuss whether there are additional actions you can incorporate into your sex life in order to best protect yourself and your partner(s), reach out to your local health clinic or to your primary care physician for guidance. They may be able to help you directly.
Regardless of your lifestyle choices, it is vital that you remain educated regarding the risks so you can choose which are worth taking and how to reduce the chance of re-infection.