7 Common Questions About Hepatitis C, Answered

We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. This week’s topic: what you need to know about Hepatitis C.

Q: My doctor just told me I tested positive for Hepatitis C. I’m in complete shock. How did this happen? He said that I need to see a specialist to get treatment, that I can get cured even, but I can’t wrap my head around this. I live such a safe life, how did I get this disease? Do I have to tell my sexual partners that I have it? I heard that the treatment feels terrible and you have to take it for a whole year, is that true? If I don’t get treated, is it going to kill me? I’m so freaked out right now.

A: Hearing you have a new health condition never feels good. But luckily for you, Hepatitis C is one that is now pretty much completely curable! And since you caught it early, your body is probably fine — the complications caused by this condition take years to occur. Knowledge is power, so let’s learn about this disease together so you can get the treatment you need, and make sure you protect those around you.

1. What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that inflames your liver, which can result in liver damage over time. Your liver does many important things for your body — it regulates nearly all the chemical levels in your blood, and it produces a substance called bile, which breaks down fats so that your body can digest and absorb them to feed itself.

The virus that causes Hepatitis C infection is called the Hepatitis C virus, or HCV for short. This virus is bloodborne, which means it lives in blood. It’s actually the most common bloodborne virus in the United States, with an estimated 3.2 million people infected.

2. How Can I Get It?

To get HCV, you need to get infected blood into your bloodstream. Unfortunately, HCV is extremely resilient — it can live in a syringe for 63 days, on a surface for 16 days, or in water for 21 days. This means blood doesn’t have to be fresh to be infectious.

So ... how can you get it?

Sharing Needles

If you use injectable drugs and you share needles, you can end up getting infected blood into your system. This behavior is responsible for 30 to 40 percent of HCV infection.

To protect yourself, don’t share needles, or any other paraphernalia that can get blood on it, like cookers, filters, cotton balls, or tourniquets. Get your own needles and recycle them safely when you’re done. Many cities now have programs that will take your used needles and give you clean new ones. No questions asked.

Sharing (Drug) Straws

If you snort drugs and share the implement you use to get these substances up your nose (straw, rolled up dollar bill, whatever), you could also be getting infected blood into your system. Snorting drugs irritates the inner lining of your nose, making it easier for tiny amounts of blood to end up on the snorting implement, and get into your nose and bloodstream.

This one's also easy to fix. If you use, just bring your own dollar/straw and don’t share. If you don’t have an implement, you can bump off of a key or your hand. It’s also a good idea to practice good inner nose health through snorting water before and after you do your drugs — this “nasal douche” moves any irritants along so they don’t keep messing with your nasal lining.

Getting A Tattoo Or Piercing

Some tattoo and piercing parlors don’t have the best sanitary practices. If you get a tattoo or piercing at a place that didn’t adequately sterilize the tattoo or piercing needle and someone before you had HCV, you can get their blood into your bloodstream. So before you beautify the canvas that is your body, make sure you’re going to a clean facility that sterilizes their tools.

Working In Healthcare

Not all healthcare workers are at risk, but if you’re someone who could be exposed to blood during your job, you are at risk. This one is hard to prevent completely, because hospitals are fast-paced and you can’t control for everything. Making sure you’re using best practices when using needles and safely disposing of blood and needles will help, though.

Getting A Blood Transfusion Or Organ Transplant (In The '70s Or '80s)

If you got a blood transfusion or organ transplant in the 1970s and 1980s, you may have gotten Hepatitis C that way. During that time, folks getting HCV in their donated blood and organs was around eight to 10 percent. In 1990, we started being able to screen blood for HCV, which lowered the risk to under five percent, and since 1993 that rate has been under one percent.

Having Sex

Sexual activity isn’t the main way people get infected with HCV, but it is a risk. The primary reason is microtears. When you have sex, you can get tiny tears in your vagina, anus, or penis. These tears, created through the normal friction of sex, can let infected blood into your system. And if your sex is rougher and includes anything that can shed blood, you have more places for someone else’s blood to get into your body and bring infection along.

To minimize microtears, use lube! The slipperier you are, the less likely you’ll get torn through friction. It’s also a good idea to use a condom to protect these parts of yourself from getting foreign blood in them.

Your Mom

If your birth mother is positive for HCV when you are born, she can transmit the virus to you during the birthing process. This is called perinatal infection. This isn’t extremely common — only around three to five percent of newborns get it, and between 25 and 50 percent of those get rid of it on their own. To ensure that your baby doesn’t get this virus, you should get treatment before giving birth.

Coming Into Contact With Blood Another Way

There are other ways to end up with someone’s blood in your body. If you share a razor with someone who has the virus and they get their blood on it, you can get their blood in you. Same goes for toothbrushes, since gums can bleed. Basically, any implement that can get blood on it and isn’t sanitized between people can carry dried infected blood. However, these are not the most likely sources for infection. If you’re worried about getting HCV, keep your stuff to yourself and ask people (like barbers and manicurists) if they have sanitized their tools.

3. What’s It Like To Have Hep C?

Most people who have Hepatitis C don’t know it, because it can take years to experience symptoms. However, some people start feeling a little off one to three months after they are infected. This can feel like fatigue, nausea, fever, darker urine, jaundice (where your eyes and skin get yellowish), and pain in your muscles, joints, and stomach.

The main symptoms come years later, when the virus has damaged your liver. This can include bleeding or bruising more easily, itchy skin, swelled legs, weight loss, confusion or sleepiness, slurring your speech, or spidery veins.

Long-term HCV infection can also cause cirrhosis, the scientific name for when your liver tissue gets scarred. If you have Hepatitis C for 20 to 30 years, that inflammation can over time cause scarring. Cirrhosis makes it hard for your liver to do its job. In more intense cases, HCV is related to liver cancer and can even cause liver failure.

4. How Do I Know If I Have It?

To know if you have HCV, you have to get tested. You can go to your doctor and get a blood test, or get a rapid test. Getting a complete blood test with your doctor is important to do eventually, because it gives additional information — like how much of the virus is in your blood, and what genotype of virus it is. There are actually a few different types and the one you have will determine your treatment plan.

It’s a good idea for everyone to know their status, but if you are doing anything that puts you at risk (like getting cheap tattoos or using intravenous drugs) you should definitely consider getting tested more routinely so you can catch this virus early.

5. How Do I Get Rid Of It?

The good news is that you can cure Hepatitis C! HCV treatment has existed for a while, but until recently, it had such intense side effects that many people chose not to complete it. (I’m talking feeling like you have the flu and being depressed for up to 72 weeks.) Luckily, those days are behind us. The new antiviral medications have way fewer side effects and you have to take them for far less time — sometimes only 12 weeks. It’s critical to work with a specialist to figure out the best way to get cured of your Hepatitis C. Many factors go into selecting the most effective treatment plan.

If you catch your HCV or decide to treat it late, when your liver has already been damaged, you might seek a liver transplant. If you still have HCV in your system when you get this new liver, it will mess with your new organ, so you should get treated before you get your new parts.

6. How Do I Stay Healthy With Hepatitis C?

Like I said, HCV is now usually curable. But if you find out you are living with HCV, there are a couple lifestyle changes you can make to keep your body healthy.

Completely abstaining or significantly limiting the amount of alcohol you use is the main one, because alcohol is super rough on your liver. Some medications can also have the side effect of damaging your liver. Make sure you tell all your doctors and herbalists that you have HCV so they don’t prescribe them to you.

7. How Can I Make Sure I Don’t Give It To Others?

There are a few things you can do to protect those you love (or hang out with) from getting your virus. If you use drugs socially, make sure you have your own needle or straw — you can always carry extra to share with your friends! The same goes with lower risk items like razors and toothbrushes. If you’re thinking about a body modification, make sure the tattoo or piercing parlor has good sanitation practices. If you’re having sex, use a condom. Even if they are also HCV positive, your lovers may have a different genotype and you don’t want to get infected with multiple types of the virus. Finally, it’s a good idea to disclose to your providers or anyone you see in an emergency room, so they can plan accordingly.

The Bottom Line

You might not know that you have Hepatitis C when you get it, or even for years to come, but if you don’t get it treated it can cause significant health problems. So go forth and get tested if you don’t know your status, and if you learn that you are positive for HCV, get the treatment you need to get cured!

Images: Pexels, Giphy