What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a viral liver disease that is contagious. 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 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 is applicable to oral sex.
Hepatitis C spreads through contact with another person’s blood. Though the risk of transmitting hepatitis C during any type of sexual activity is low. 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 isn’t spread through kissing or saliva.
Hepatitis C is a virus that affects the liver. Hepatitis C damages the liver cells, causing inflammation and scarring known as fibrosis, and liver cirrhosis. It can also cause liver cancer and liver failure.
Hepatitis C and oral sex
Most people wonder if hepatitis C is transmitted through oral sex alone. However, there is yet no direct evidence to prove that. A person should still be cautious anytime blood is present because an infection can still occur.
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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 gums or mouth
- throat infection
- cold soresor canker sores
- genital warts or genital herpes
- damaged and cracked lips
The chances of contracting or transmitting hepatitis C from one person to another during oral sex is low. Risk factors for contracting hepatitis C include:
- a high viral load
- a person has an acute HCV infection
- already having HIV or STI
- 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
How is hepatitis C transmitted?
Transmission of the virus occurs when the blood of an infected is transmitted to another person. While spread of hepatitis C through sexual contact is uncommon, there are many other ways a person can get infected. The hepatitis C virus lives in the blood and certain bodily fluids. Exchange of semen may also result in infection, though the chances of this are very infrequent.
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Furthermore, while the hepatitis virus has been identified in saliva, antibodies in saliva block the transmission of the virus to others, so the disease is not spread through kissing.
Besides sexual contact, the most common ways a person can get infected with hepatitis C virus are:
- unregulated or unsanitary tattooing and body piercing
- intranasal drug use or snorting drugs
- being born to a mother infected with the virus
- breastfeeding, only if nipples are cracked or bleeding; it is not transmitted in breast milk
- injecting drugs
- sharing razors, toothbrushes, and grooming clippers
- certain medical procedures
Many people who have hepatitis C virus may not realize that they have it. But, depending on whether the infection is acute or chronic, symptoms of the disease can include:
- abdominal pain
- lack of appetite
- darker urine
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- tenderness of the liver
- grey-colored stool
- joint or muscular pain
Most people infected will only experience symptoms as the virus progresses and may not experience symptoms when they first get it. Many infected people only discover they are carrying the virus when they have a routine blood test.
When to see a doctor
All individuals born between 1945 and 1965 should get tested for hepatitis C because they 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.
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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.
About 15 to 20 percent of hepatitis C infections will resolve on its own 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 without treatment, 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:
- increased fluid intake
- adequate rest
- not consuming alcohol
- eating a healthful diet