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Causes, Risk Factors and Prevention of Hepatitis C

By Dr. Tina M. St. John ; Updated August 14, 2017

When it comes to contagious viruses, the hepatitis C virus is more finicky than most in terms of how it is passed from one person to another. Whereas cold and flu viruses are easily transmitted through the air, the hepatitis C virus is a blood-borne virus. This means it can only be transmitted by specific types of contact with infected blood or body fluids that allow the virus to enter your bloodstream. Although hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne viral illness in the U.S., the likelihood of contracting it is based on specific risk factors, such as your age and behaviors or activities that may have exposed you to contaminated blood.


The baby boomer generation has distinguished itself in countless positive ways. But boomers are also notable as the generation hardest hit by hepatitis C. Roughly 75 percent of people in the U.S. living with hepatitis C were born between 1945 to 1965, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While aging itself doesn’t increase your risk for hepatitis C, people in the baby boomer generation are more likely to have experienced some of the most common routes to hepatitis C infection.

Medical Exposure

The hepatitis C virus, or HCV, circulates in the blood and is most likely to cause infection when contaminated blood is directly introduced into the bloodstream of another person. Because the virus has been around since at least the 1940s, medical exposures to contaminated blood infected many people before HCV was discovered in 1989. The most common medical source of HCV infection is a blood transfusion before 1992, the year HCV screening in donated blood began in the U.S. Other possible medical exposures to HCV include:

  • organ or tissue transplant - receipt of blood-clotting factors for hemophilia before 1987 - accidental needle sticks in health care workers - dialysis for kidney failure, especially before 1998

Illicit Drug Use

Use of injected street drugs is a leading risk factor for hepatitis C. Most new HCV infections in the U.S. occurring in young people are caused by sharing injection equipment, especially needles and syringes, since they are often contaminated with blood. Injecting drugs — even if only once many years ago — increases your risk for hepatitis C. It isn’t clear whether sharing drug paraphernalia to smoke or snort drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine may also increase the risk for HCV infection, although this possibility can not be ruled out.

Mother-to-Child Transmission

Approximately 4 to 8 percent of babies born to mothers infected with HCV are also infected, according to a September 2014 review article published in the World Journal of Hepatology. Women infected with both HCV and HIV are more likely to transmit hepatitis C to their babies. While HCV has been detected in breast milk, breast-feeding does not cause infection because it does not get into the baby’s bloodstream.

Other Possible Risk Factors

HCV is uncommonly transmitted through sexual intercourse. Sexual transmission most commonly occurs among men who have sex with men and people who have multiple sexual partners. HCV infection rarely occurs as a result of sexual activity between men and women in exclusive relationships.

Piercings and tattoos are a possible but unlikely source of HCV infection, especially if performed by a professional. Sharing potentially blood-contaminated household items, such as razors and toothbrushes, is another unlikely but possible source of HCV infection. You cannot catch hepatitis C from casual contact with someone with HCV — such as hugging, kissing or shaking hands.

Next Steps

Talk with your doctor about testing if you may be at risk for hepatitis C. While hepatitis C can be scary, knowing whether you have it is far better than not knowing. Most people with hepatitis C can be cured of the illness with treatment, limiting the risk for cirrhosis and liver cancer associated with the infection.

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