Hepatitis C: Causes & Risk Factors

Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). It's a blood-borne illness, which means you get the disease by coming into contact with an infected person's blood. Knowing your risk factors can help you figure out if you've been exposed to HCV and how you may have gotten the disease.

Most common risk factor for hepatitis C:

  • IV drug use. In the U.S., the most common way hepatitis C is spread is through the use of shared, unsterilized, or poorly sterilized needles, syringes and injection equipment or paraphernalia. Studies show that roughly one-third of IV drug users (IDUs) between the ages of 18 and 30 have hepatitis C. The rate of HCV infection among IDUs was closer to 90% back in the 1970s and 1980s when the risks of blood-borne viruses were not widely known.

Other risk factors for hepatitis C:

  • Accidental needle sticks. Hepatitis C can be spread in hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare settings when caregivers, such as nurses, doctors or EMTs, are accidentally stuck with needles used to treat infected patients.
  • Blood transfusion. Although this was once a common way of spreading the disease, it is now extremely rare in the U.S. As of 1992, all blood is routinely screened for HCV.
  • Intranasal cocaine use. Sharing straws to "snort" cocaine may lead to contact with small amounts of HCV-infected blood through sores in your nose.
  • HCV-infected mother. Although it is rare, a pregnant woman with hepatitis C can pass HCV to her unborn baby.
  • Unprotected sex. Getting hepatitis C by having sex with an infected partner is possible, but it's very uncommon. HCV is spread through the blood and is not usually found in other bodily fluids, such as semen. So, for HCV to be passed from one person to another during sex, there would have to be tearing or some other exchange of blood.
  • Tattoos and piercings. Although it is possible to get hepatitis C through the needles used for tattooing and body piercing, as well as electrolysis and acupuncture, it's very unlikely—especially if all safety precautions are taken.
  • Sharing toiletries. The chances of getting hepatitis C from sharing personal items such as razors, toothbrushes, or nail files with someone who has the disease are extremely low. There would have to be an exchange of trace amounts of blood from bleeding gums or cuts.
  • Hemodialysis. People who receive hemodialysis treatment for kidney failure are at greater risk for hepatitis C. Studies show this may be due to the numerous transfusions these patients receive and shared dialysis machines.