How to prevent Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C (HCV) is caused by a virus that is passed along from one individual to another via blood or other body fluids. There is no vaccine to protect against HCV. Most people in the US who are infected with HCV get it through intravenous or injection drug use. However, there are other ways that a person can get HCV. The risks of acquiring HCV in these other ways are small, and include occupational, perinatal (during birth), or sexual transmission, and receiving long-term hemodialysis. It is possible to transmit HCV trough personal care items, tattoos and piercings, but these risks are not well-documented. To prevent getting HCV, it is important to know how the virus is transmitted and to minimize your risk by avoiding high-risk activities or taking precautions when engaged in activities where risk is increased. 1,2

How you can reduce your risk of getting HCV

Injection and other illegal drug use. To reduce risk of contracting HCV, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that a person stop using or injecting illegal drugs (including intranasal drugs). The best way to do this is to get help, such as by entering a substance abuse treatment and relapse prevention program. For persons who continue to use or inject illegal drugs3:

  • Never reuse or share syringes, water, or drug preparation equipment.
  • Only use syringes obtained form a reliable source (e.g., pharmacies).
  • Use a new, sterile syringe to prepare and inject drugs.
  • Be sure the surface where you are preparing drugs is clean and has not been exposed to HCV.
  • If possible, use sterile water to prepare drugs; otherwise, use clean water from a reliable source (e.g., fresh tap water). Be sure the container has not held previously contaminated water.
  • Use a new or disinfected container (i.e., cooker) and a new filter (i.e., cotton) to prepare drugs.
  • Clean the injection site before injection with a new alcohol swab.
  • Safely dispose of syringes after one use.
  • Get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, if you are not immune or already been vaccinated.
  • Get tested for HIV infection.

Occupational exposures. To reduce the risk of contracting HCV from occupational exposures, you should learn about risk and prevention measures for bloodborne infections. If you are a healthcare worker, these include getting required vaccinations (hepatitis B), and using standard barrier precautions and other controls to prevent exposure to blood. Healthcare workers should follow all protocols for reporting and follow-up of percutaneous (through the skin) and permucosal (through the mucosal membrane) exposures to blood and other body fluids. 4

Home infusion therapy. For a patient receiving home infusion therapy, it is necessary to use adequate infection-control practices to reduce risk of HCV transmission. The healthcare professional who is responsible for overseeing the program of home therapy can provide training in infection-control practices.4

Dialysis. To reduce risk of HCV transmission via dialysis, a patient receiving dialysis should make sure a dialysis center follows a protocol to prevent HCV transmission. These precautions include use of gloves whenever a patient or hemodialysis equipment is touched, and restricting use of supplies, instruments, and medications to a single patient. Routine precautions for dialysis patients should include the following. 4

  • Patients should have specific dialysis stations assigned to them, and chairs and beds should be cleaned after each use.
  • Sharing among patients of supplies such as trays, blood pressure cuffs, clamps, scissors, and other non-disposable items should be avoided.
  • Non-disposable items should be cleaned or disinfected appropriately between uses.
  • Medications and supplies should not be shared among patients, and medication carts should not be used.
  • Medications should be prepared and distributed from a centralized area.
  • Clean and contaminated areas should be separated (e.g., handling and storage of medications and hand washing should not be done in the same or an adjacent area to that where used equipment or blood samples are handled).

Household exposures. Studies have shown that HCV transmission through sharing personal hygiene items (such as a toothbrush or razor) with an infected person is possible, but that the risk is generally low.1

Sexual contact

The risk of HCV transmission through sexual contact is generally low, especially for HIV-negative individuals. There are no reports of female-to-female sexual transmission of HCV. There may be a slight risk of HCV transmission during menses, and common sense suggests using barrier protection during this time.1

HCV sexual transmission risk increases among those who are HIV-positive, particularly among HIV-positive men who have sex with men (MSM).5 HCV risk increases in HIV-infected men with CD4+ T cell counts, particularly counts of 6

Reducing risk in other settings. If you are considering tattooing or body piercing, your risk for contracting HCV is low as long as you are getting your tattoo or piercing at a regulated business where infection control procedures (e.g., washing hands, using latex gloves, disinfecting surfaces and equipment) are followed. However, in a setting where control procedures are not followed, there can be substantial risk.4

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Written by: Jonathan Simmons | Last reviewed: March 2015.