July 22, 2020

Sex, injecting drugs, and hep C prevention

In the lead up to World Hepatitis Day on July 28, we thought it important to share some information about hepatitis C.  This page has some information about how you can avoid getting hep C when having sex and when using drugs. We’ve also included some information on hep C testing and treatment.  

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C (hep C) is an inflammation of the liver caused by infection with the hep C virus. It is estimated that in Australia, around 230,000 people are living with hep C.  Around 30% of people who get hep C can clear the virus within 6 months, without treatment. If someone has not started treatment and still has hep C after six months of becoming hep C positive, then hep C is considered a chronic condition.    

If hep C is not treated it can cause liver damage and long-term can result in cirrhosis of the liver and even death. 


How does someone get hep C?   

Generally, hep C is transmitted by blood to blood contact, this means that for one person to pass hep C onto another person, they must be hep C positive and some of their blood must enter the blood stream of another person.  Some of the major risks for passing on hep C include: 

  • Sharing injecting equipment 
  • Use of non-sterile equipment during medical procedures  
  • Backyard tattooing or piercing  
  • Mother to baby, if the mum has hep C during pregnancy 
  • Sex where there is blood to blood contact 

It is important to remember that someone can have hep C without knowing it and that you cannot tell if someone has hep C by looking at them. 


How do you avoid Hep C when having sex?   

Hep C is passed on through blood to blood contact and it is not usually considered a sexually transmitted infection, however if there is blood to blood contact during sex, hep C can be passed on.   

Unlike HIV, hep C can live for a long time (up to two weeks) outside of the body, so if there are specs of blood in lube or on sex toys and toys  are shared when having sex, then hep C can be passed on from one person to another. 

Use barrier protections: If you are having rough sex, or if you are fisting, then using barrier protections like condoms or gloves is a good way to avoid hep C.  If having sex in a group, remember to use new gloves, or condoms for each partner. Washing your hands in warm soapy water between partners is also a good idea. 

Be careful when sharing sex toys: If you are sharing sex toys, use barrier protections like condoms. If you are sharing sex toys in a group, remember to use a new barrier protection for each partner you are sharing a sex toy with.  

When using toys, preparation and postcleaning is the key to avoiding hep C. Pre-session, wash toys in warm soapy water (preferably non-scented and anti-bacterial). Post-session, repeat the process and if possible, spray toys with viraclean and allow to dry, then ensure they are stored safely. E.g. a clean re-sealable plastic bag  

Don’t share bottles of lube: If many people are sharing the same bottle of lube and there are specs of blood in the lube, this can be a risk for getting hep C. This is particularly risky if you are sharing a bottle of lube with an open top. Using lube from a resealable tube instead of lube from an open top container will reduce the risk.    

Don’t share douching facilities:  Sharing douching facilities can be a risk for hep C, this is particularly risky if you are sharing a douching shower hose.  

If it is unavoidable and you find you have to share douching equipment, always make sure you thoroughly clean the douche. This should be done immediately by flushing out the tube with hot water and then washing the nozzle and tube in warm soapy water (preferably anti-bacterial) and if possible, the use of viraclean spray can greatly reduce any risks when sharing douches. 


How do you avoid hep C if you are injecting? 

The most important thing to remember when injecting with a partner, friend or in groups is to avoid sharing equipment. This applies to syringes and to everything else we might use, such as spoons, sterile water and tourniquetsUsing coloured fits (Unisharp) that are available at most NSP’s, allows you to choose your colour and by sticking to that colour is a great way to prevent sharing of syringes. 


How do you test for hep C? 

If you suspect that you have been exposed to hep C, it is important that you talk to your GP, who can request a blood-test for hep C.  

There are also other methods such as dry blood spot (DBS) tests that you can do in the privacy of your own home. This simply involves a finger-prick test (which you do yourself), where blood is put onto a card and sent away for testing.  


How is hep C treated? 

Currently, we have some amazing new hep C treatments that have a high cure-rate, can treat all types of the virus and don’t give people nasty side effects. These drugs have minimal to no side-effects and generally only need to be taken for 8 to 12 weeks. By working directly with your doctor, most people can find an effective treatment suited to their needs.  

For more information about hep C talk your GP, your local NSP staff or call the Hepatitis Infoline on 1800 803 990. If you are looking for a specific service for hep C, Hepatitis NSW has a great services directory that you can visit here.   Hep.org.au also has lots of useful information.  

With the current situation surrounding COVID-19 and the need for social distancing, ACON strongly encourages everyone to avoid casual sex with people you are not living with or who are not your regular sexual partner. Read more about casual sex and COVID-19 on the ACON website.