How do you get it?

Hepatitis C is not as easily passed on as hepatitis A or hepatitis B, but it can cause long term damage to your health and there is no vaccine to prevent it. The hepatitis C virus is present primarily in blood (including dried blood) and can also be present in cum. Traditionally injecting drug use was the most common way to catch hepatitis C but it is now known that unprotected sex, particularly high risk sex, and chemsex that is associated with hep C infection.

There are a number of ways that hep C can be transmitted. These are:

  • Sex without condoms with a person who has hep C. 
  • Sharing needles or works for injecting drugs, including steroids, with someone who has hep C. 
  • Being fisted by someone with hep C who has cuts or sores on their hand and isn't wearing a glove. 
  • Being fisted by someone who has just fisted another person with hep C and who hasn't put on an unused latex glove or thoroughly washed their hands between partners. 
  • Having unprotected sex with someone who has just had sex with another person with hep C and who didn’t change condoms between partners (or use condoms at all). 
  • Using a dildo or other sex toy that has just been used on someone with hep C and which hasn't been thoroughly cleaned, or had a new condom put on it. 
  • Sharing a drug snorting straw, banknote or bullet with someone who has hep C, as small specks of infected blood could be on the straw, banknote or bullet.

How do you prevent it?

You can reduce the risk of getting hep C by:

  • Using a new condom when you have sex. 
  • Using a new sterile syringe and needle for injecting steroids or recreational drugs. 
  • Making sure the person fisting you is wearing an unused latex glove. If you don't have any latex gloves, make sure the person fisting you doesn't have cuts or sores on their hands and has washed their hands thoroughly if they have just fisted someone else. 
  • Using a new condom on your dildo if it's been used on someone else. 
  • Using your own drug snorting straw, banknote or bullet.

How do you know you've got it?

Hepatitis C produces many of the same symptoms as hepatitis A and B, although most people do not notice any symptoms when they are first infected. A sexual health clinic can test you for hepatitis C. Make sure you ask for a test if you think you have been at risk. It is tested for by taking a blood sample.

How do you treat it?

When you first get hep C (within the first six months) it is called Acute Hepatitis C. In this situation approximately one in five people may clear the virus themselves over the first six months but you still need regular blood tests to ensure it has fully gone. The majority of people will not clear hep C without treatment. If diagnosed in time they can be treated early with interferon injections and ribavirin tablets, usually for six months, aiming to cure the infection.

If you are not treated early or if you have chronic (more than six months) hepatitis C there are many new treatments now becoming available which can also cure the infection. The choice of treatment depends on the strain of Hep C and should be discussed with your specialist. The treatment course is for several months and the drugs can have frequent side effects which may be severe.

Acute hepatitis C from sex is more common among HIV-positive people but if you feel you have been at risk it is free and easy to do the test in a GU clinic. Treatment is more effective early on so if you've been at risk, getting tested regularly is recommended. People with hepatitis C should stay away from recreational drugs, steroids, fatty foods and especially alcohol.

In 2009, about 300 gay men were diagnosed with hepatitis C at sexual health clinics in the UK. If you have had hepatitis C treated and cured or you cleared it yourself you still have no protection or immunity from catching it again. Many people will be re-infected if they continue to take risks. Long term hep C can cause many health issues including liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and death.

Which sexual partners should I inform if I've been diagnosed with hepatitis C?

You should inform anyone you've had sex with, or shared a needle with if you have injected drugs, up to two weeks before any jaundice appeared. If you don't have symptoms, it will depend on what stage of hepatitis C you have and the level of risk involved, so talk to your health adviser about this.

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LAST UPDATED: 09/01/2017