Hepatitis C information for women

There are a number of specific issues women need to consider regarding hepatitis C.

Mother to child transmission

Transmission of the hepatitis C virus from an infected mother to her unborn child is uncommon and only happens at the time of birth. In fact, it only happens in about 6 babies out of 100 who are born to mothers infected with hepatitis C. If a mother is also infected with HIV then the risk of passing on hepatitis C to the baby is higher.

Hepatitis C has not been found to cause problems during pregnancy.

Breast feeding is considered safe since there is no proof that breastfeeding can transmit hepatitis C – but it is recommended that if a woman’s nipples are cracked and bleeding that she doesn’t breastfeed her baby until the nipples are healed.

If you are infected with the hepatitis C virus, the usual amount of time before testing the baby is 18 months. This is because the baby will automatically get the mother’s antibodies and it takes this long before the baby’s body is able to clear out the mother’s antibodies.

If you are pregnant or planning to have a child and are hepatitis C positive, it is important to discuss the transmission risk with your consultant. Some medical providers will advise treatment of the woman’s hepatitis C before having a child.

Sharing of toothbrushes and shaving equipment is the only other situation where a child could be exposed to the virus via a parent who is living with hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C should have a minimal effect on you caring for your child. You can wash them, cook for them, you should feel comfortable doing everything a parent wants to do for their child.

Transmission during menstruation

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus, so is present in a woman’s menstrual blood if she is living with the virus. This is one of the few situations which sexual transmission of hepatitis C is possible between heterosexual couples. In an Italian study that demonstrated how unlikely sexual transmission was in a long term heterosexual relationship, all of the couples denied having sex during menstruation.

The impact of oestrogen on cirrhosis

Oestrogen is a hormone women produce primarily between puberty and the menopause. It has been shown to have anti-viral properties and has two known effects on hepatitis C: 

  • It is believed to be the reason women have a higher rate of spontaneous clearance of the virus. This is where somebody's immune system is able to clear the virus within the first six months of infection.
  • During chronic infection, oestrogen protects the liver and slows down liver damage. After the menopause, women produce less oestrogen so lose this protective effect. Post-menopausal women are at risk of more rapidly advancing cirrhosis.