Living Well with Hepatitis C Virus Infection
How can I prevent the spread of hepatitis C virus (HCV)?
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is usually spread by contact with infected blood. However, there is a very low but real risk of spreading the virus through other body fluids, such as semen or vaginal secretions. The risk increases if blood is mixed in with these secretions. It is much more likely for someone to become infected with HCV following contact with infected blood than with other body fluids.
If you are infected with HCV, you can reduce the chance of spreading this virus to others by doing the following:
- Never donate your blood, semen, body organs or tissues.
- Discuss with your partner(s) the fact that you are infected with HCV.
- Practice safer sex. Use a condom every time you have sex, especially if you have more than one partner. This also helps to reduce the risk of other sexually transmitted infections. For more information, see HealthLinkBC File #08o Preventing Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
- Discuss issues about pregnancy and breastfeeding with your health care provider.
- Tell your health care provider if you have ever donated or received blood products or tissue transplants.
- Do not share razors, toothbrushes, dental floss, nail files, or other items that could have tiny amounts of blood on them.
- Do not share drug snorting, smoking or injection equipment, such as straws, pipes, cookers, filters, water, needles or syringes.
- Clean and disinfect areas that could have blood on them using a fresh solution of bleach. The bleach solution can be made by mixing 9 parts water with 1 part household bleach. For more information, see HealthLinkBC File #97 Contact with Blood or Body Fluids: Protecting Against Infection.
- Keep all open cuts and sores bandaged until healed.
- Put articles stained with blood in a separate plastic bag before disposing into household garbage – for example, bandages, tissues, tampons, razors, dental floss.
- Tell your health care provider, dentist and anyone else who might come in contact with your blood, such as those who do tattoos, body-piercing, electrolysis, or acupuncture, that you are infected with HCV. This will allow them to take precautions to help prevent spreading HCV to themselves and others.
- Advise anyone whose blood has direct contact with your blood to visit a local public health unit or their health care provider.
How is hepatitis C virus not spread?
HCV is not spread by:
- casual contact, such as in an office setting;
- coughing or sneezing;
- physical contact such as hugging and kissing;
- using the same dishes or cutlery;
- swimming in a chlorinated pool when you have cuts or scrapes or when you are menstruating;
- being bitten or stung by an insect which then bites or stings someone else; or
- the healthy skin of others coming into contact with your body fluids such as saliva, urine, feces or vomit.
Breastfeeding is not considered to be a risk for the spread of HCV. However, infected nursing mothers whose nipples are bleeding or cracked should consider refraining from breastfeeding until after they have healed since the virus could be spread through blood.
What are the symptoms of HCV infection?
Most people infected with HCV will feel well and have no symptoms. They may not know that they have HCV infection. Some people may have a brief illness with symptoms of hepatitis usually appearing 6 to 12 weeks after they have been infected with the virus.
Symptoms of acute HCV infection may include: fever, tiredness, abdominal pain, dark urine, loss of appetite, nausea, and jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes. A few people may experience long-term health concerns, such as tiredness, lethargy or digestive problems.
About 7 out of 10 people who become infected with HCV carry the virus throughout their lives. These people remain infectious and can spread the virus to others. They are also at risk of becoming ill in the future.
This long-term or chronic HCV infection may lead to scarring of the liver, called cirrhosis. The chance of developing cirrhosis increases with the length of infection. After 20 years, about 2 out of 10 people with hepatitis C will have cirrhosis. People who drink alcohol are at greater risk of damaging their liver. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure or liver cancer in a small number of people.
Is there treatment or vaccine for hepatitis C?
At this time, there is no vaccine to prevent HCV infection; however, there are effective treatments. If you are infected, you should discuss these options with a health care provider.
Whether you start treatment or not, you should see your health care provider regularly and have your blood tested to determine how your liver is functioning. You may be referred to a specialist for further testing and assessment. Some people with hepatitis C are eligible for treatment, which may cure the viral infection. Some people with severe liver damage from hepatitis C will need a liver transplant.
What can I do to stay as healthy as possible?
To promote good health while living with HCV infection, learn about the disease and consider the following:
- Get more information about hepatitis C from your health care provider, local health unit, support groups, or the Canadian Liver Foundation at www.liver.ca.
- Avoid alcohol as it increases the liver damage caused by HCV.
- Use over-the-counter and prescribed medications only as advised by your health care provider.
- Do not take megavitamin therapy or herbal products without consulting your health care provider.
- Eat healthy, nutritious food as outlined by the Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide. Visit www.hcsc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index-eng.php for more information.
- Get regular exercise.
- Avoid smoking and illicit drugs. For information about quitting smoking, see HealthLinkBC File #30c Quitting Smoking. For information about managing substance use, visit the HeretoHelp website at www.heretohelp.bc.ca/workbook/you-and-substance-use-stuff-to-think-about-and-ways-to-make-changes or call 310-6789 for free, 24 hour support.
- Get the hepatitis A and B vaccines, if you are not already immune. These vaccines are provided free to people infected with HCV. Hepatitis A and hepatitis B virus infections may cause further liver damage. For more information, see HealthLinkBC File #25a Hepatitis B Vaccine and HealthLinkBC File #33 Hepatitis A Vaccine.
- Get the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine and then get a booster dose of the vaccine 5 years later. The vaccine and the booster dose are free for people infected with HCV. For more information, see HealthLinkBC File #62b Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine.
- Get the influenza vaccine every year. The vaccine is free for people infected with HCV and is usually available in October. For your best protection you should get the vaccine as soon as it is available. For more information, see HealthLinkBC File #12d Inactivated Influenza (Flu) Vaccine.
- It is important to manage the HCV infection and take good care of your health. HCV infection should not be a barrier to employment.