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You can become infected with hepatitis C through blood-to-blood contact with an infected person.

A small amount of blood can cause an infection. Activities such as sharing needles have the highest risk of hepatitis C infection.

Other bodily fluids can contain the virus. But you are not at risk of hepatitis C infection from activities with no blood-to-blood contact.

Hepatitis C is not spread through:

  • social contact, such as hugging or kissing
  • using shared kitchen utensils or toilets
  • coughing or sneezing

Injecting drugs

People who inject drugs are at the highest risk of becoming infected with hepatitis C. This includes injecting illegal drugs and performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids.

Sharing injecting needles and equipment (‘works’) with someone who is infected is the most common way to get hepatitis C in Ireland.

Injecting yourself with just 1 contaminated needle may be enough to become infected.

It's also possible to get the infection by sharing other contaminated equipment used to prepare or take drugs. For example, spoons, filters, pipes and straws.

Less common causes of hepatitis C

Unprotected sex

If your partner has hepatitis C, you should get tested.

Hepatitis C may be transmitted during sex without using a condom (unprotected sex). But this risk is considered very low. The risk may be higher if blood is present, such as period blood or from minor bleeding during anal sex.

The risk of transmission through sex may be higher among men who are gay, bisexual or other men or transgender people who have sex with men.

The risk is also increased if:

  • there are genital sores or ulcers from a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • either person is living with HIV
  • you take part in chemsex -

Use condoms when having anal sex or sex with a new partner. You can use an external (male) condom or internal (female) condom.

Information about condoms -

Blood and organ donations before October 1991

Hepatitis C was discovered in 1989.

There's a small chance you may have been infected with hepatitis C if you had:

  • a blood transfusion or blood products before October 1991
  • an organ transplant before 1992

Since October 1991, all blood donated in Ireland is checked for the hepatitis C virus. Since 1992, all organ donations are tested for hepatitis C.

Information about the Health Amendment Act (HAA) Card (PDF, 1.7 MB, 36 pages)

Blood transfusions and treatment abroad

You may be at risk of infection if you have ever:

  • received blood or blood products in a country where blood donations are not tested for hepatitis C
  • had medical or dental treatment in a country where hepatitis C is common and infection control is poor

High-risk areas for hepatitis C include Africa, the Middle East and central Asia. If you were born in a high-risk area, get a test for hepatitis C once in your life.

Sharing toothbrushes, scissors and razors

There's a small risk that hepatitis C may be passed on through sharing items such as toothbrushes, razors and scissors.

These items can become contaminated with infected blood. The hepatitis C virus may be able to survive in patches of dried blood for several weeks.

Most hair salons have high hygiene standards, so the risk of infection is low.

Tattooing and body piercing

There is a risk that hepatitis C may be passed on by using tattooing or body piercing equipment that has not been properly sterilised.

Most tattoo and body piercing parlours in Ireland have high hygiene standards.

But you should get tested for hepatitis C if you got a tattoo in a:

  • prison
  • non-professional setting where equipment was not properly sterilised

Mother to child

There is a small chance that a mother who is infected with the hepatitis C virus can pass the infection on to her baby.

If your mother had hepatitis C when you were born, you should get tested.

You cannot get or spread a hepatitis C infection from breast milk.

Needle stick or sharps injury

There's a small risk of getting hepatitis C if your skin is punctured by a needle used by someone with hepatitis C.

Healthcare workers, nurses and laboratory technicians are at increased risk. This is because they are in regular close contact with blood and bodily fluids that may contain blood.

Information for HSE staff on the safe use of sharps

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

Page last reviewed: 8 February 2023
Next review due: 8 February 2026