Pregnancy and breastfeeding with hepatitis C
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that can cause damage to your liver and increase your risk of developing liver cancer.
Pregnant women are routinely screened for hepatitis C since there is a small risk the baby can become infected with the virus during birth. Hepatitis C is treated using antiviral medication, but this cannot be used if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
How is hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C can spread when blood from an infected person comes into contact with the blood of an uninfected person. The virus cannot be spread through kissing, touching, sneezing, or by sharing food or bathrooms.
Some common ways in which people become infected include:
- during birth, a baby can become infected if the mother has hepatitis C
- injecting drugs using equipment contaminated with hepatitis C
- getting a tattoo or body piercing using equipment contaminated with hepatitis C
- undergoing unsafe medical practices, including blood transfusion, in some overseas countries
- taking part in rituals that involve blood
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
Symptoms of hepatitis C generally don’t show up right away because it can take years for the virus to do enough damage to cause symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they may include:
- aches and pains
- tiredness and sleep problems
- skin rashes and itchy skin
- changes in mood, depression or anxiety
- feeling sick and not having an appetite
In the 6 months after infection, some people experience symptoms of jaundice (yellow eyes and skin).
Should I have a blood test for hepatitis C?
If you are concerned that you may have become infected with hepatitis C, you should have a blood test before you become pregnant. This is because it is easier to treat hepatitis C in women who are not pregnant. If you are currently pregnant, you will be offered a hepatitis C test as part of routine screening. If your blood test for hepatitis C comes back positive, your doctor may ask you to do another blood test to confirm the results and check for other infections.
Can hepatitis C be treated? Is there a vaccination?
Hepatitis C can be treated effectively with a direct-acting antiviral medicine. You would be prescribed pills which are taken daily, or several times a day, over the course of a few months. These medicines can cure you of hepatitis C. However, they cannot be taken if you are pregnant or breastfeeding since the medicines can affect your baby.
Ribavirin, one of these antiviral medicines, is considered particularly dangerous for pregnant women since it can cause serious birth defects and even the death of the baby. If you or a male partner are currently taking ribavirin, you should use reliable contraception (birth control) and not try to become pregnant for at least 6 months after you finish taking it.
There is currently no vaccine against hepatitis C.
How might hepatitis C affect my pregnancy?
Having hepatitis C generally has no impact on the pregnancy, except for the risk of passing the infection on to the newborn during birth. If you need to have invasive tests during the pregnancy, such as amniocentesis or chorionic villous sampling, your doctor can help you decide the best way to do this so as to reduce the risk to your baby.
How do I prepare for labour and birth?
If you have hepatitis C, your doctor will recommend that during the birth you don’t have any medical procedures that increase your baby’s risk of exposure to your blood. Your baby is no more likely to become infected with hepatitis C whether you give birth naturally or by caesarean section.
How can I reduce my risk of transmitting hepatitis C?
If you are not yet pregnant, speak to your doctor about medicines to cure your hepatitis C. If you are already pregnant, your doctor will help you decide the best way for your baby to be born safely, while minimising the risk of infecting your baby with hepatitis C.
Can I still breastfeed if I have hepatitis C?
Breast milk will give your baby the best start possible, and hepatitis C will not be transmitted to your baby in breast milk. If your nipples are cracked or bleeding, it is best to express your breast milk and then throw it away for a few days until they heal.
If I have hepatitis C, what does this mean for my newborn?
After your baby is born, the hospital’s healthcare team will give them a quick bath to wash off any of your blood. Once they are clean, they will receive their vaccinations and vitamin K in the same way as any other baby. You will be able to care for your baby normally at home.
Once they are at least one year old, your baby will be tested to see if they have become infected with hepatitis C. Even if they have, they are unlikely to have any symptoms.
Help and support
If you are concerned that hepatitis C could be affecting your pregnancy or newborn baby, you can contact any of the following organisations for help:
- Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.
- Hepatitis Australia — 1800 437 222
- Australian Breastfeeding Association — 1800 686 268
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Last reviewed: August 2021