Is Hepatitis C a Sexually Transmitted Disease?

Asked to reel off a list of sexually transmitted infections or diseases, you would most likely name gonorrhoea, HIV, and chlamydia – and perhaps, at a push, syphilis and hepatitis B. But just how many of us would think of hepatitis C?

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went public with a scary statistic: in the past five years, hepatitis C cases in the US have tripled, “reaching a 15-year high”. Though England has seen an increase in diagnoses in recent years, it is thought that increased testing is partially responsible, and that the number of new cases of hepatitis C has remained relatively stable in recent years.

The problem in both countries, however, is that, as hepatitis C is often symptomless, many people may be unaware that they have the disease – and when left untreated as a result, hepatitis C can lead to serious health issues, including cirrhosis and a range of other liver problems. Add in the fact that hepatitis C can be transmitted during sex, and you begin to see how this disease could be more dangerous than many people suspect.

How Hepatitis C is Spread During Sex

The reason that hepatitis C can be thought of as a sexually transmitted disease is that it is primarily spread through blood-to-blood contact. While other bodily fluids can carry the virus, you are most likely to contract the disease from contact with infected blood.

The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is most commonly spread through the sharing of drug needles and injecting equipment – in fact, the NHS estimates that 90% of all hepatitis C cases in the UK are related to drug injecting. Though unprotected sex poses less of a risk than sharing injecting equipment, it can be a key risk factor for certain groups of people.

During sex, the skin on the penis, or in the vagina or anus can sometimes break and bleed. The tissue within the rectum is particularly vulnerable to breakage, which is why anal sex is typically riskier than vaginal or oral sex. Infection with hepatitis C can occur when infected blood enters the bloodstream through these breakages in the skin.

Even if breakages don’t occur during sex, transmission can still occur if there are any wounds, sores or ulcers on or around the genitals (usually caused by another STI). It’s also believed that people who are HIV-positive are more susceptible to passing on and contracting hepatitis C during unprotected sex.

Though it is not thought that hepatitis C can be passed on through oral sex, there are some factors which may increase your risk. Circumstances in which you may want to avoid oral sex if you or your partner have hepatitis C include: menstruation, ulcers or sores in the mouth or on the genitals, and bleeding gums.

Avoiding Hepatitis C

It’s widely agreed that contracting hepatitis C through unprotected sex is uncommon, and that the risk is very low. Unlike hepatitis B, hepatitis C is not typically spread through other bodily fluids, which means you are far less likely to contract the disease through sex.

However, it’s still important to practise safe sex – particularly if you or your partner has hepatitis C. For penetrative vaginal or anal sex you should always use condoms; water-based lubricants are also advised if you want to avoid condom breakage. For oral sex, you can use dental dams and condoms.

Remember too that contracting other STIs can make hepatitis C transmission more likely. If you notice any sores, ulcers, blisters or skin growths around your genitals or your partner’s genitals, you should refrain from sex and get tested for STIs such as syphilis, genital herpes, and genital warts.

If your partner has hepatitis C, or if you’re HIV-positive and engaging in unprotected sex with casual partners, it’s advised that you get tested for the disease. You can do this by visiting your GP, or a sexual health or GUM clinic. You can also order a home test kit through www.TheGUMClinic.com. Click here to learn more about hepatitis C and order one of their easy home test kits.