Correcting Misconceptions About Hepatitis C
Harmeet Gill, MD
Learn the facts about how hepatitis C is a serious, but treatable condition, and how you can avoid infection.
Hepatitis C is an infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) that damages the liver, a critical organ responsible for filtering waste products, aiding digestion, and other important functions. The CDC estimated approximately 57,500 new cases of hepatitis C in 2019, and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reports that approximately 2.4 million people are living with hepatitis C, though the actual number may be much higher.
Hepatitis C is contagious and can lead to a lifetime of challenges and complications, especially if left untreated. It is vital to avoid risky behaviors that can lead to infection by HCV and other dangerous viruses. However, many people have misconceptions about hepatitis C, how it’s transmitted, and about living with and treating the infection.
To better understand hepatitis C and help prevent future infections, here are nine common misconceptions around the virus and the facts behind each.
Nine Misconceptions About Hepatitis C
Misconception #1: Hepatitis C can’t be transmitted during sex. The Reality: While infection from HCV during sex is uncommon, it is still possible. Though HCV is generally not transmitted through vaginal secretions or semen in high enough concentrations to cause infection, sex partners can be exposed to blood infected with the virus through tissue tears, or via menstrual blood. Men living with HIV who have sex with men also have an increased risk of contracting HCV through sexual contact.
Misconception #2: Blood transfusions put you at risk for contracting HCV. The Reality: For people who received blood or blood products prior to 1992, there was a risk of developing a hepatitis C infection. Today, however, all blood and blood products are screened for HIV, HCV, and other blood-borne diseases, ensuring it is safe for you to receive a blood transfusion.
Misconception #3: Hepatitis C is only a brief infection. The Reality: HCV can cause both short (acute) as well as long term (chronic) infections. Acute infection occurs within the first six months of acquiring HCV. Symptoms can range from fever, weakness, jaundice (the yellowing of skin, whites of eyes, and mucous membranes), nausea and vomiting, and abdominal discomfort. Symptoms usually resolve spontaneously, then transition into a chronic infection. More than half of all people with acute HCV infections will develop chronic hepatitis C. Chronic hepatitis C can be lifelong if left untreated. It damages the liver by causing cirrhosis (scarring of the liver tissue) and cirrhosis-related complications like vomiting blood and distention of the abdomen with fluid. Chronic hepatitis C carries a high risk of causing liver cancer and liver failure.
Misconception #4: Treatment of Hepatitis C prevents all future infections. The Reality: Successful treatment of hepatitis C does not provide people with immunity to the virus. Even if a person has been cured of hepatitis C, they can still reacquire the virus if they use IV drugs and share needles or engage in unprotected sexual intercourse.
Misconception #5: There is no need to treat hepatitis C if it isn’t bothering you. The Reality: Hepatitis C is a chronic illness that can take many years to produce symptoms which affect the liver. The virus causes inflammation of the liver tissue and changes in its structure ranging from simple fatty deposition to severe liver cirrhosis. People with untreated hepatitis C are also at risk of developing liver cancer.
Misconception #6: You shouldn’t breastfeed if you have hepatitis C. The Reality: It is okay for new mothers living with hepatitis C to breastfeed if their nipple tissue is intact, and the skin is not broken. If the nipples start to crack or another injury occurs, it is recommended to avoid breastfeeding at that time.
Misconception #7: There is a vaccine for all hepatitis infections. The Reality: While there is a vaccine for preventing hepatitis A and hepatitis B, there is currently no vaccine available which can prevent you from getting HCV. The only way people can decrease their risk of acquiring hepatitis C is to avoid IV drug abuse and needle sharing, and use barrier methods for sexual intercourse.
Misconception #8: There is no cure for hepatitis C. The Reality: The good news is that there are medications available to treat and effectively cure hepatitis C. However, once a person has had hepatitis C, their risk for developing liver cancer remains. It is advisable to avoid any toxins or harmful substances which affect the liver, such as drinking alcohol.
Misconception #9: Only people engaging in sex with multiple partners should get tested. The Reality: According to recent guideline updates from the CDC, the public health agency “now recommends one-time hepatitis C testing of all adults (18 years and older) and all pregnant women during every pregnancy. CDC continues to recommend people with risk factors, including people who inject drugs, be tested regularly.”
You should get tested for HCV if you:
- Have ever injected drugs, even if it was just once or many years ago
- Have HIV
- Have abnormal liver tests or liver disease
- Are on hemodialysis
- Received donated blood or organs before July 1992
- Received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
- Have been exposed to blood from a person who has hepatitis C
While hepatitis C is a serious illness that can cause major disruptions to your life, it can be treated. HopeHealth offers specialized care for people living with hepatitis C and other infectious diseases. Our range of services include clinical care, case management, medication assistance, and community awareness and education. If you are interested in becoming a patient, contact us at (843) 667-9414 to schedule your first appointment.
Dr. Harmeet Gill is an infectious diseases physician at the HopeHealth Medical Plaza in Florence. He earned his medical degree from A.N. Magadh Medical College, Gaya, Bihar, India and completed his fellowship at Palmetto Health USC in Columbia, SC. Dr. Gill is board certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases and has vast experience managing rural health initiatives. He ran the national polio eradication program and is the recipient of a state level award for efficiently managing a cholera outbreak in India. Fluent in English, Hindi, and Punjabi, Dr. Gill is a member of The Infectious Disease Society of America and the American Medical Association.