Is Hep C an STD?

Medically Reviewed on 7/11/2022

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis is a term for inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C has been found to be transmitted through sexual contact occasionally.
Hepatitis is a term for inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C has been found to be transmitted through sexual contact occasionally.

You may have heard of hep C, or hepatitis C — but what is it, and what makes it different from hepatitis A, B, D, and E? 

Many wonder if it is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) — also referred to as a sexually transmitted infection — and something they need to talk about with a new partner before being intimate. 

Here is the rundown of what you need to know.

Hepatitis. Hepatitis is a term for inflammation of the liver. The liver is an important organ that filters blood and processes nutrients. It also plays a role in metabolizing many different medications so that your body can use them or get rid of them.

Inflammation, though, can affect how well your liver functions and even cause permanent damage. This inflammation can be caused by multiple things, including:

  • Frequent and heavy alcohol use
  • Toxins
  • Certain medications
  • Some medical conditions
  • Viruses

Viral Hepatitis. Hepatitis C is a form of liver inflammation caused by a virus, specifically, the hepatitis C virus (HCV). There are also viruses designated as hepatitis A, B, D, and E, with hepatitis A, B, and C being the most common. 

While the five types of hepatitis are caused by viruses, they differ in how they are transmitted, how long they last, how they affect those infected, and what treatments are available.

Hepatitis C. An estimated 2.4 million people are currently living with hepatitis C, and it is a leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants.

When someone is first infected, they are said to be in the “acute phase” of the disease. After six months, 15% to 30% of people will have eliminated the virus on their own, but the remainder will enter the “chronic,” or long-term, phase of the disease. Without treatment, hepatitis C can be a lifelong infection.

How is hepatitis C transmitted?

Hepatitis C is transmitted through blood. In any situation where an uninfected person is exposed to the blood of an infected person — even in tiny amounts — they are at risk for infection.

Some scenarios that may lead to infection include:

  • Sharing needles or other equipment that may be contaminated with blood
  • Being born to an infected mother
  • Obtaining an organ transplant or blood transfusion before 1992. (After this year, hepatitis C was largely eliminated from donated blood and tissues via testing.)
  • Poor infection control practices at healthcare practices have also been connected to outbreaks.

So, is it an STD? Hepatitis C has been found to be transmitted through sexual contact occasionally. However, since hepatitis C is only transmitted through blood — not regular semen or genital contact like other sexually transmitted diseases — only sexual acts that increase chances of exposure to blood are thought to put you at risk.

Sexual activities that put you at higher risk for contracting HCV include:

  • Anal sex or anal play
  • Sex involving more than two people
  • Drug use during sex
  • Vaginal sex during menstruation
  • Any other sexual activity that could lead to blood-to-blood contact

How can I protect myself from hepatitis C?

There is not currently a vaccine for HCV like there is for hepatitis A and B. The best way to protect yourself from hepatitis C is to reduce the chances that you will be exposed to the blood of an infected person in the first place.

If you are engaging in any of the high-risk sexual activities listed above, be sure to use protection. Also, have a conversation with any potential partner about whether they have been exposed to hepatitis C and ask them to get tested before engaging in any sexual activity. 

Those who engage in injectable drug use should never share needles or other equipment. Hepatitis C testing is recommended for this population as well, even if someone has not used drugs in many years. Active users are encouraged to be tested regularly.

If you think you may be at high risk for exposure to hepatitis C or have questions about how to protect yourself, you should reach out to your primary healthcare provider.


What Is Viral Hepatitis? How You Catch Hepatitis A, B, and C See Slideshow

What are the signs I might have hepatitis C?

One of the difficult things about hepatitis C is that many infected people do not have symptoms — and when symptoms appear, they often are signs of advanced liver disease.

The 25% to 35% of people who develop symptoms in the acute phase may experience:

Some people may also develop jaundice. This is the yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes and is a sign of liver issues.

People with chronic hepatitis C also may or may not have symptoms of infection. Those symptoms may be similar to those caused by many other illnesses, which can make the disease difficult to diagnose. 

Some examples of chronic hepatitis symptoms are:

The difficulty of recognizing hepatitis C symptoms is one reason why all adults are advised to receive a hepatitis C test.

How is hepatitis C treated?

There is currently no recommended treatment for individuals who are in the acute phase of hepatitis C. Approximately half of the people who test positive for hepatitis C may remove the infection on their own without any medical intervention.

If the infection becomes chronic, your doctor may recommend an oral treatment. The current practice involves 8 to 12 weeks of anti-viral pill treatments, which cure 90% of people. Even if you are among the 10% who are not cured in this first round of therapy, your prescriber can try other drugs, too, including combinations of antivirals and immunotherapy drugs.

A small group of people may be infected with a strain of HCV that is resistant to many of the more widely used therapies. In these cases, your provider should work closely with you to find a treatment regimen that your body will respond to.

Medically Reviewed on 7/11/2022

American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases: "HCV Resistance Primer," "Retreatment of Persons in Whom Prior Therapy Failed."

CDC: "Hepatitis C," "Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for Health Professionals," "What is Viral Hepatitis?"

John Hopkins Medicine: "Liver: Anatomy and Functions."

The Hepatitis C Trust: "Hepatitis C Liver Damage Progression," "Sexual Contact," "Symptoms of Infection with Hepatitis C."