What is Hepatitis C

By  Hepatitis Australia     |    Updated: 29th April, 2017    |    7 min read

Hepatitis C is a virus that causes liver inflammation and liver disease. The virus reproduces by making many copies of itself in liver cells.

The hepatitis C virus does not kill liver cells directly, but the immune response initiated by the presence of the virus in the liver can cause liver inflammation and cell death.

How do people get hepatitis C

Well lets starts my breaking some myths: Hepatitis C cannot be caught from sharing hugs, kisses, food, cups, gym equipment, office space or public transport. There is no risk of contracting hepatitis C from a mosquito or other blood-sucking insects.

Hepatitis C is spread through blood-to-blood contact. Therefore for transmission to take place, blood containing the virus must enter the bloodstream of another person. In the ordinary course of life, hepatitis C is not easily caught, however, it is worth thinking about any instances in which blood-to-blood contact may take place and subsequently take appropriate precautions – so keep reading to find out more because it covers wide range of activities from injecting drugs through to getting a piercing.

Understanding how hepatitis C is transmitted is equally important for people who are already hepatitis C positive so they can reduce the chance of:

  • being infected with another genotype of hepatitis C;
  • being re-infected with the same genotype of hepatitis C; and
  • transmitting hepatitis C to another person.

Tattoos and body piercing

A small number of people have been infected with hepatitis C through unsterile tattooing or body piercing procedures. Anyone considering a piercing or a tattoo should make sure that their tattoo artist or body-piercer applies infection control procedures, which means using single-use disposable needles, dye tubs, surgical gloves, and so on.

You have the right to ask the practitioner about their use of standard infection control procedures and their understanding of why these procedures are important – be sure to be familiar with them yourself so you have clear idea of what is best practice.

If you get a tattoo or piercing done at home or by an unlicensed parlour your risk of becoming infected with the hepatitis C virus is very high.  Watch our videos in the section above on Getting a safe tattoo and piercings for some great advice.

Injecting equipment

Currently in Australia, the greatest risk for the transmission of hepatitis C is through blood-to-blood contact involving the sharing or re-using of injecting equipment such as; needles and syringes and other injecting equipment, surfaces used for mixing up, disposal containers, also hands and puncture sites can become contaminated during the injecting process so also pose a risk of transmission.

Some people who have only injected drugs once or twice in their life have become infected with hepatitis C so unsafe use just once can result in contracting the virus. The safest way to avoid the transmission of hepatitis C and other blood-borne viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B is not to inject drugs. Some people choose other ways of consuming drugs, contact your local youth health service for information on safer methods (see suggested links in the footer below).

If you do inject drugs, there are ways you can reduce your risk of hepatitis C and other infections passed on by blood-to-blood contact such as HIV and hepatitis B. If you inject drugs always wash your hands, wipe down the preparation area and always inject with:

  • clean hands (wash your hands thoroughly)
  • a clean injecting space
  • a new fit (syringe)
  • new sterile water
  • new swabs (at least one to swab your spoon and one to swab your injecting site—remember to swab in one direction only, rubbing back and forth with a swab spreads dirt and germs)
  • your own tourniquet—never share
  • new filter
  • a clean spoon; and
  • an approved disposal bin (always dispose of your fits in a puncture proof container).

For more information on safer injecting practices please contact your local peer-based user group for copies of the Guide to Safer Injecting developed by the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users’ League (www.aivl.org.au).

Blood transfusions and blood products

The Australian Red Cross Blood Bank now tests all donated blood and blood product for hepatitis C virus and antibodies. Screening for hepatitis C began in February 1990. Before this time, some people were infected with hepatitis C when they received blood or blood products contaminated with the virus.

Mother-to-child transmission

Research shows that the risk of transmission to a baby during pregnancy or childbirth is low. There are no confirmed reports of hepatitis C transmission from mother to baby by breast milk and the current scientific opinion remains that there is no significant evidence of HCV transmission through breast-feeding.

Damage to the nipples such as cracked and bleeding nipples could pose a possible risk to the baby if blood-to-blood contact occurs through small tears or scratches in or around the baby’s mouth. Therefore, it is recommended that women with hepatitis C who have cracked or bleeding nipples should express and discard their breast milk while their nipples are cracked. If you are or are planning to become pregnant and breastfeed and have any concerns talk to your doctor, midwife our Community Nurse.

Transmission in health care setting

Some people in Australia contracted hepatitis C through unsterile medical injections and other medical procedures in their country of origin. The risk of transmission of hepatitis C through unsterile medical procedures has been virtually eliminated in Australia, since the introduction of standard infection control procedures (Standard Precautions).

Other activities where blood may be involved

Sexual Activities

Transmission of hepatitis C through sex is unlikely, and hepatitis C is not classified as a sexually transmissible infection (STI). However, where there is a risk of blood-to-blood contact during foreplay or sex. Where there is a risk of the transmission of sexually transmissible infections it is recommended you practice safe sex.

Personal Grooming

Pack your own!!

Personal grooming items used for everyday hygiene may present a possible transmission risk if blood is present. To minimise the risk of transmission, it is suggested that people do not share razor blades, tooth brushes (due to the possibility of bleeding gums) and sharp personal grooming aids. So if you are staying at a friend this weekend be sure to pack your own toiletries bag!


Stepping on a used needle in a public place, such as a street, a park or a beach, is regarded as an unlikely source of transmission. But if something occurs you are uncertain about contact your doctor.

Preventing the spread of hepatitis C

People with hepatitis C can take simple precautions to minimise the risk of transmitting the virus to others. These involve:

  • Reducing any opportunity where other people may come in contact with infected blood
  • Not sharing injecting equipment
  • Not sharing personal toiletry items like toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers or any items able to puncture the skin and draw blood
  • Having a first aid kit at hand
  • Keeping cuts, abrasions or wounds clean and covered with waterproof dressings
  • Cleaning up any blood spills with paper towels and soapy water or undiluted bleach and
  • Securing all bloodstained items, such as wound dressings, tampons and sanitary pads in a plastic bag before putting them in a rubbish bin.

Also see great download-able resources from Hepatitis Australia in the footer below and the further info section below.

Further Information


For more information on hepatitis C and other forms of Hepatitis you can contact the national infoline 1300 HEP ABC (1300 437 222). The national infoline diverts to information and support lines at your local state and territory hepatitis organisations.

Also check the related topics:  

Hepatitis C Sex & Sexual Health

Factsheet provided by Hepatitis Australia


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