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DocSpot: Hepatitis C

Dear Dr Margaret
I might start dating someone who just told me he has hepatitis C. Can you get it from sex? Can you get it from kissing? If a condom was used, can you still get it? Please let me know facts about this. I’m very worried.

Full marks to your friend for letting you know that he has hepatitis C. But I agree that hepatitis C is not something you want to acquire, because in roughly 1 in 10 people who are infected, it causes long-term damage to the liver (cirrhosis). This is most likely to happen in people who stress their liver by drinking too much alcohol in addition to having hepatitis C. Also, a few people with hepatitis C develop liver cancer.
 
Hepatitis C is a virus, transmitted mainly by blood. Therefore you can acquire it by injecting drugs using shared needles, or by having tattoos or body piercing using unhygienic, non-sterile equipment. It is also possible to acquire hepatitis C by sharing personal items such as toothbrushes, razors, nail files or nail scissors – these can become contaminated by tiny, invisible specks of blood containing the virus, which could then pass into someone else’s bloodstream through tiny sores or scratches. In the past, hepatitis C might have been transmitted by blood transfusions but, in the UK, blood donors have been screened for hepatitis C since 1991.
 
If you have sex with someone who has hepatitis C, it is possible that you could acquire it. The risk seems to be fairly low, but if you do decide to have sex with this partner you should definitely use condoms. Condoms probably give good protection, but only if they are used properly – have a look at our condoms section for advice.
 
I cannot provide a definite answer to your question about kissing. The virus may be in the saliva of someone who has hepatitis C. In 1990, the medical journal The Lancet (1990;336:503–4) reported a case of someone acquiring hepatitis C through being bitten by another man during a dust-up in a bar. My guess is that acquiring hepatitis C by is probably possible but fairly unlikely. I think it would be more likely if your own gums were in bad condition, so it would be a good idea to ask your dentist for a check-up. (Bleeding when you brush your teeth is a sign of bad gums.) It would also be more likely if the person with hepatitis C had bleeding gums, so your friend should have a dental check as well (telling his dentist that he has hepatitis C). But avoid kissing within a day or two after visiting the dentist, because dental treatment may traumatize the gums temporarily.
 
If you want to find out more about hepatitis C, I recommend the following websites.
www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/hepatitis/c/faq.htm gives answers to commonly asked questions about hepatitis C from the US government Centers for Disease Control.
www.britishlivertrust.org.uk/home/the-liver/liver-diseases/hepatitis-c-updated.aspx is a factsheet from the British Liver Trust, a not-for-profit organization.
www.mhcs.health.nsw.gov.au/publication_pdfs/8390/DOH-8390-ENG.pdf is an excellent factsheet from the government of New South Wales in Australia

Last updated; Monday, June 7th 2010 at 3:47 am


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