HIV and Hepatitis C: What’s the Connection?

Living with HIV is a risk factor for hepatitis C.

Loading the player...

Over 20 percent of people with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) also have had hepatitis C in their lifetime, according to the CDC. What’s the connection — and how can you reduce your risk of hepatitis C if you have HIV?

What is HIV?

HIV is an infection that affects the immune system. The virus targets the body’s T cells, which usually help the body fight off infections. When T cell levels fall, you may be more vulnerable to other types of infections, including hepatitis C.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C is a type of hepatitis caused by a virus that attacks the liver. The infection may be acute, meaning it lasts fewer than six months. When hepatitis C lasts six months or longer, it is considered chronic. Chronic hepatitis C can cause long-term liver damage and even death.

What’s behind the link between hepatitis C and HIV?

First, having HIV makes your body more susceptible to infections. That means you might contract hepatitis C more easily than someone without HIV. Plus, once you have hepatitis C, your body may be less able to fight it off. This may be why people with HIV tend to have more severe liver damage from hepatitis C.

Next, HIV and hepatitis C share many risk factors. They are both spread via blood, which means the types of activities that increase the risk of HIV can also increase the risk of hepatitis C. This includes:

  • Injection drug use and sharing needles
  • Unprotected anal sex
  • Being born to a mother who has HIV and/or hepatitis C

How can you reduce your risk of hepatitis C if you have HIV?

If you have HIV, some of the best ways to reduce your risk of hepatitis C and/or protect your liver health is to:

  • Stick to your HIV treatments as prescribed to preserve your immune system
  • Avoid injection drug use
  • Use clean, sterile needles if you are going to inject drugs
  • Use a condom during sex
  • Avoid sharing personal items that could contain blood, including razors and toothbrushes

Your doctor may also recommend more frequent hepatitis C testing. In general, all adults should receive at least one hepatitis C test in their lifetime. People with risk factors — including having HIV — may benefit from getting tested more often.

That way, if you do have hepatitis C, you can detect it early and start treatment. Early treatment generally reduces the risk of long-term liver damage, liver cancer, and even premature death.