While most people know by now that Hepatitis C is not efficiently transmitted through sex, there are still many sexual, romantic, and interpersonal complications that one may experience after a Hepatitis C diagnosis. The real risk is that the infected person has a more compromised immune system and may be more susceptible to infection and symptoms of other STIs he or she may contract. The most significant sexual problem is the psychological impact of the infected person with wanting and getting love, intimacy, and sex.
Hep C is a contagious liver disease that is primarily spread by contact with infected blood. It can last a lifetime, or shorten a lifetime, causing liver complications such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. Over 3.2 million Americans currently have Hepatitis C, and one of the biggest predictors for successful coping with the disease is a strong support system of physicians, friends, family members and partners.
Hepatitis C has a stigma in our society based on misconceptions that we need to correct. Let’s set the record straight by tackling some common false beliefs about Hep C and the real facts behind them:
1. “It comes from unhygienic or dirty conditions.”
Hep C does not come from unhygienic conditions. It comes from blood that is infected. A surface that looks clean, but has been exposed to infected blood, can contain the virus from 16 hours to 4 days. Conditions that look dirty, dusty, or unclean in other ways do not present a risk unless infected blood has been exposed.
2. “It is a sexually transmitted illness.”
In the past, Hep C was listed with everything from HIV to Gonorrhea as an STI, or sexually transmitted illness. As of today, the CDC states that Hep C is not efficiently spread through sex. A recent study has shown that monogamous couples with one infected person showed zero transmission over the course of the study. Certain behaviors such as anal sex and rougher sex increase the likelihood of risk.
3. “It is a death sentence.”
In 2014, a new cocktail of medications was approved by the FDA making the most common and hardest to treat genotype 97% curable in three months, as opposed to the past treatments that were curable 70% and took 6-12 months of a treatment course. Hep C is now a curable illness.
A person living with Hep C may experience feelings and thoughts that will have an impact on their ability to create and maintain close interpersonal relationships. They may identify as being a sick person, causing them to isolate themselves and even feel more ill. They may feel shame due to stigma or previous lifestyle choices
Hep C may have a great impact on one’s sexuality. Some common struggles that one may have include:
- Fear of transmission to uninfected partner
- Fear of being judged for illness during sexual encounter
- Physically a person may be more tired
- Like having sex on the flu, with a hangover
If on treatment, men have less erections and ejaculations. Women may experience vaginal dryness, which can lead an overall decline in sexual desires. Depression is also a side effect of the treatment, which can lead to a lower sex drive. Many people on treatment take an antidepressant to help with this side effect. Unfortunately, a side effect of many antidepressants is a lowered sex drive. They may feel shame about their body and the changes from liver disease or treatment such as hair loss, weight loss, and more.
There is an impact on close personal relationships and intimacy that can result from shame and depression. Infected persons may withdraw from friends and family. Comparing genders, a study by the Center for Women’s Studies in 2011 stated that “The task of managing both health and relationships was undertaken by women much more commonly than by men. Finding love and becoming a desirable partner, sometimes engaged people in new ways with their health.”
Helping a partner with the illness is not an easy task, but one that is needed for the emotional and psychological wellbeing of one’s partner. The three components that will increase emotional resilience and ultimately have a positive impact on a relationship with an infected person are:
Encourage your partner and family to read about the illness. Accompany your partner to the doctor and ask proactive questions. Try to have an understanding of the illness.
2. A Healthy Lifestyle
Encourage your partner to eat healthy, exercise, and avoid alcohol. A healthy lifestyle will help to lessen symptoms and make the infected person more comfortable.
3. Support Systems
Support from the person’s partner, family, friends, and doctor are all important. Be perceptive to possible symptoms of depression, hopelessness, or even suicidality. Help them connect to a mental health professional if needed.
While the prognosis for Hepatitis C has improved, it is still prevalent and has an impact on not just the 3.2 million infected persons, but their partners and families. Healthy and proactive behaviors from the infected person and their support systems will help the prognosis, increase intimacy, and feelings of connectedness.