By Bethany Cadman
Reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD
Hepatitis C is a type of liver disease that can spread from person to person. It is caused by the hepatitis C virus, otherwise known as HCV or hep C.
There is no current vaccine to protect against hepatitis C, although preventive measures can be taken to reduce a person’s risk of contracting the disease.
Unprotected vaginal and anal sex can lead to contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but people may wonder if the same applies to oral sex.
Hepatitis C is a viral disease and is contagious — is it possible to contract hepatitis C from oral sex?
Hepatitis C spreads through coming into contact with another person’s blood. If infected blood from one person enters another person’s bloodstream, that person may become infected.
Overall, the risk of transmitting hepatitis C during any type of sexual activity is low. While highly unlikely, it could happen during oral sex if a person with hepatitis C has cracked and bleeding lips and the partner has an open wound.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hepatitis C is not spread through kissing or saliva.
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a virus that affects the liver.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C infections globally. Just under 400,000 people die from hepatitis C-related liver diseases every year.
Hepatitis C damages the liver cells, causing inflammation and scarring known as fibrosis, as well as liver cirrhosis. It can also cause liver cancer and liver failure.
Hepatitis C and oral sex
Currently, there is no direct evidence to prove that hepatitis C is transmitted through oral sex alone. However, a person should still be cautious anytime blood is present because an infection can still occur.
If either sexual partner has a break in their skin, there may be a risk of blood passing from one person to the other.
Additional risk factors may include:
- bleeding from the mouth or gums
- a throat infection
- cold sores or canker sores
- genital warts or herpes
- damaged and cracked lips
The risk of contracting or passing hepatitis C from one person to another during oral sex is very low. This is particularly true of couples in monogamous relationships who have been tested for contagious diseases.
Knowing how hepatitis C transfers from one person to another, as well as understanding safer sex practices, can further reduce a person’s risk of infection.
Risk factors for contracting hepatitis C include:
- a person has an acute HCV infection
- a high viral load
- individuals who have multiple sexual partners
- not using barrier protection, such as condoms or dental dams, during sexual activity
- damaging the skin from previous injuries or rough sexual activity
- already having an STI or HIV
How is hepatitis C transmitted?
While transmission of hepatitis C through sexual contact is rare, there are many other ways a person can become infected.
The hepatitis C virus lives in the blood and certain bodily fluids. Transmission of the virus occurs when an infected person’s blood is transmitted to another person.
Exchange of semen may also result in infection, though the chances of this are very rare.
Additionally, while the hepatitis virus has been detected in saliva, it is believed that antibodies in saliva block the transmission of the virus to others, so the disease is not transmitted through kissing.
Besides sexual contact, the most common ways a person can become infected with hepatitis C virus are:
- injecting drugs
- intranasal drug use or snorting drugs
- unregulated or unsanitary tattooing and body piercing
- being born to a mother infected with the virus
- sharing razors, toothbrushes, and grooming clippers
- certain medical procedures
- breastfeeding, only if nipples are cracked or bleeding; it is not transmitted in breast milk
Many people who have been infected with the hepatitis C virus do not realize that they have it.
However, depending on whether the infection is acute or chronic, symptoms of the disease can include:
- lack of appetite
- abdominal pain
- tenderness of the liver
- darker urine
- grey-colored stool
- joint or muscular pain
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
The majority of people infected will only experience symptoms as the virus progresses and may not experience symptoms when they first contract it.
Many infected people only discover they are carrying the virus when they have a routine blood test or try to donate blood.
When to see a doctor
Although it is often difficult for a person to know that they have been infected with the hepatitis C virus, if they have reason to believe they have been exposed to it, they should get tested as soon as possible.
All individuals born between 1945 and 1965 should be tested for hepatitis C if they have not been already. People of this generation are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other people. There is no clear reason for this, but researchers know that transmission was at its highest during the 1960s–1980s.
Diagnosis is made using a blood test to check for specific antibodies that would be present in an infected person. This test is known as the hepatitis C antibody test or anti-HCV test.
If a person tests positive for antibodies, doctors will suggest further testing to see whether the hepatitis C virus is currently active. This test is called an RNA or PCR test.
It is possible to have a false positive result. This occurs when a person receives a positive anti-HCV test when they do not have the virus.
A positive result can also occur if a person has had the infection in the past, but it has already cleared. An RNA test should always be done to confirm whether a person has active hepatitis C.
It is also possible for recently infected persons to receive a false negative result when they do have the virus. This is because there may not be sufficient antibodies present in the blood to react with the test early on.
If infected, a doctor may refer a person to a liver specialist. Other blood tests and a liver biopsy may be done to determine the level of damage and whether cirrhosis or cancer of the liver has occurred.
A wide range of factors determine the treatment options. People with hepatitis C should also be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, if not previously exposed.
Sexually active people should be screened for STIs on a regular basis, particularly if they change sexual partners or have many sexual partners. It may take up to 4 to 12 weeks for hepatitis C to show up in test results.
About 15 to 20 percent of hepatitis C infections will clear up without treatment. In all other people with the disease, hepatitis C will be chronic.
It is not clear why some people can eliminate the virus, and others are cannot. If a person is diagnosed with hepatitis C, doctors can prescribe antiviral medications for treatment.
Other self-care practices that a person can do during the acute infection include:
- adequate rest
- increase the intake of fluids
- not drinking alcohol
- eating a healthful diet
If a person is unaware they have acute hepatitis C and it develops into a chronic infection, a doctor may recommend other medical treatments.
Hepatitis C is considered a manageable condition. New antiviral drugs have proven effective at fighting off the virus, and living a healthy lifestyle can help to treat hepatitis C effectively.
A person with hepatitis C should always take extra precautions during sexual activity to limit the risk of transmitting the disease to someone else.
If a person is diagnosed with hepatitis C, making healthy choices and working closely with a doctor means that they can usually manage the virus.
SOURCE: MEDICAL NEWS TODAY