Hepatitis C

Think you may have been exposed to hepatitis C? Here’s what you need to know.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a virus that causes liver inflammation. There are acute and chronic stages of the disease. A small number of people’s bodies are able to clear the virus on their own during the acute or early stage of infection. However for most people, this is not the case, and they develop chronic hepatitis C.

How is hepatitis C spread?

  • Hepatitis C is passed when blood from an infected guy gets into the bloodstream. Microscopic traces of blood can carry the virus, and the virus can survive in dried blood outside the body for several days to weeks.
  • The most common way to get hepatitis C is by sharing needles during injection drug use. Sharing cocaine straws and other drug equipment that may have blood on it is another way to get hepatitis C.
  • Hepatitis C can be passed during certain types of sex between guys. This usually occurs when an infected partner inserts a penis, sex toy or hand into the anus of another guy. This often happens during group sex, where more than one bottom is sharing the same top or sex toy. Both rough sex and prolonged sex increase the chances that blood will be passed between guys. Sharing lube and poppers during group sex may also be ways to pass hepatitis C.
  • Hepatitis C is not passed in semen or feces.
  • Less commonly, hepatitis C can be passed when people share razors, nail clippers or other personal care items that may have blood on them.

How do I know if I have hepatitis C?

  • Hepatitis C may not produce symptoms for several years. Many guys are surprised to find out they have been infected.
  • The acute or early stage is the first six months after infection. During this time, you may experience a general flu-like feeling, with a loss of appetite, fatigue, and fever. You might also notice dark-coloured urine, yellow skin or eyes and tenderness on your right side below your ribs. Many guys do not experience any symptoms at all. A small number of guys’ bodies will clear the infection on their own during this stage.
  • Chronic or long-term infection occurs in the majority of guys; their bodies aren’t able to clear the infection on their own during the acute stage. Symptoms typically do not occur for several years. Gradually, however, the disease progresses to the point where the liver cannot function properly. Fatigue and poor appetite are common problems at this stage.

How do I test for hepatitis C?

Be honest with a health care professional about your sexual and drug history. You may be asked to give a blood sample to test for hepatitis C antibodies.

What do I do if I have hepatitis C?

  • If you are infected with hepatitis C, you will need to have regular blood tests to track the health of your liver.
  • Try to maintain a healthy diet, exercise, and limit your drug and alcohol intake.
  • You might be offered treatment with antiviral medications specific for hepatitis C. The treatment period is long (about a year) and the side effects are unpleasant. The treatment is effective only 50% of the time.
  • Some people may have to have a liver transplant.
  • There is no vaccination for hepatitis C.

How do I protect myself?

  • Try to eliminate your exposure to the virus.
  • Don’t share anything that may have blood on it.
  • Don’t share drug equipment, especially needles, cocaine straws or pipes.
  • During sex, don’t put anything into your anus that might have someone else’s blood on it. Sharing lube or poppers should also be avoided.
  • Use condoms during anal sex, and use plenty of lube to reduce tearing in your anus. Have anal sex for less time, and with less force. For fisting, use gloves on a clean arm and don’t share lube. Change condoms or gloves each time you move between partners. Be sure to wash up between partners as well.
  • You can reduce your chances of coming into contact with Hepatitis C by reducing your number of sexual partners. If you have numerous partners, get tested regularly.

Hepatitis C and HIV

  • HIV-positive guys are especially vulnerable to getting Hepatitis C during sex. Compared to HIV-negative guys, HIV-positive guys’ bodies are less likely to clear Hepatitis C on their own. They are also less likely to respond to antiviral drugs.