Can Hepatitis C Infection Be Passed On During Sex?

What is Hepatitis?

If you have been told that your spouse has hepatitis, you are likely to want to know what is the risk of contracting hepatitis C from your spouse. In this article, the symptoms and transmission mechanisms for hepatitis will be discussed.

The word “hepatitis” literally means inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis is a potentially fatal disease of the liver which is caused by exposure to a member of the hepatitis family of viruses. There are five hepatitis family five variants (labelled A to E) of which the two most important members are hepatitis B and C.

How Is Hepatitis Transmitted

Hepatitis A and E infections are usually caused by consuming contaminated food or water whereas hepatitis B, C and D are caused by infection by contaminated bodily fluids (blood, semen or vaginal). Hepatitis B is predominantly transmitted sexually.

Infection with hepatitis C is the most common blood borne infection in the USA. According to CDC, there are somewhere in the region of 3.2 million people suffering from chronic infection in the USA today. Viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer in the USA and accounts for the vast majority of liver transplant operations carried out each year. It may take from 20 to 30 years for hepatitis C infection to prove fatal via liver cancer or cirrhosis.

The hepatitis C infection is spread through the exchange of blood or, to a much lesser extent, other bodily fluids such as semen or vaginal fluid and so hepatitis can be transmitted during sexual contact (both heterosexual and homosexual sex) or through drug abuse by sharing needles. In the western world, these mechanisms represent the major transmission routes for young adults. Health care workers are at risk of contracting the disease in the workplace since hepatitis C virus particles can survive outside the body for up to a week. Consequently, it is imperative that proper hygiene measures are in place when treating patients that might have been exposed to the virus.

Prevalence of Hepatitis B and C in The USA

Estimates suggest that 43 000 Americans will be infected with Hepatitis B and 17 000 will contract Hepatitis C each year – prevalence of the diseases are much higher in certain parts of the world; so travellers may be at increased risk. It is estimated that between 2000 and 4000 people die from contracting hepatitis B in America every year. Some 8000 to 10000 people die from contracting hepatitis C annually in the USA.

The incubation period (the delay between infection and the appearance of symptoms) for the virus is typically 90 days after which symptoms of the disease may appear. However, antibodies to the virus can be detected in the patient’s blood between 30 and 60 days following infection.The symptoms due to hepatitis include jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and eyes); abdominal pain; nausea and vomiting; extreme fatigue and dark urine.

Whilst hepatitis C can be transmitted sexually, blood borne contact is a more efficient route for contamination and is often associated with intravenous drug abuse. So, the answer to the question “what is the risk of contracting hepatitis C from your spouse?” is that it is possible, but not highly probable. If you suspect that you or your partner may have hepatitis, you should consult a doctor without delay. It would be prudent to practice safe sex and refrain from any sexual activity that might cause bleeding (such as anal sex).

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Viral Hepatitis: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/
  2. WHO: https://www.who.int/topics/hepatitis/en/