Blood-borne viruses (BBVs)

Viruses are tiny germs that cause disease. A blood-borne virus (BBV) is a virus that can be spread through infected blood. The most common BBVs in the UK are the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which attacks the body’s immune system; and the hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses which cause liver damage.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

HIV causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus affects the body’s immune system, which is required to fight infection; and so someone with AIDS is more likely to get an infection or cancer than someone without AIDS.
If you are worried or have concerns about HIV, try talking to someone about it. The only way to find out if you have HIV is to take a test. You can get a HIV test at your GP practice or at your local sexual health clinic. 

You can find out more from our page on HIV/AIDS


Hepatitis is a disease that affects the liver. The liver becomes swollen, and in some cases hepatitis can lead to liver failure. The liver is a very important organ in your body that has many different jobs, including breaking down toxins such as alcohol, and producing chemicals that help digest food.

There are several types of hepatitis but only two of these are caused by BBVs – Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. Hepatitis A is also caused by a virus, but instead of being transferred in blood, it can be found in dirty water and food in some countries, so you could be at risk when on holiday. Another form, alcoholic hepatitis, is not caused by a virus, but instead by drinking too much alcohol. For more information of what is a safe limit of alcohol, have a look at our alcohol page

For more information about your liver, and diseases that can affect your liver, check out this video from NHS choices. 

Hepatitis B

What is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV).

Acute (short-lasting) hepatitis B causes:

  • liver inflammation (it becomes swollen, red, and painful)
  • vomiting
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • and very rarely, death.

Chronic (long-lasting) hepatitis B may eventually cause:

  • cirrhosis (when the liver becomes scarred and it does not work properly) 
  • liver cancer – a disease that is very difficult to treat.

How is HBV spread?

HBV is transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids for example, sharing needles or having unprotected sex with someone who is infected. 

HBV cannot be spread by:

  • holding hands, hugging or kissing
  • using a toilet seat
  • sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses
  • coughing/sneezing
  • breastfeeding.

Is there a vaccine?

Yes, HBV infection can be prevented by vaccination.

Hepatitis C

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). HCV causes acute symptoms in 20% of cases. The symptoms are normally mild and non-specific, including:

  • Eating less
  • Tiredness
  • sickness
  • muscle or joint pains
  • weight loss.

About 80% of those exposed to the virus develop a chronic infection. Most people with HCV don’t have any symptoms, but after many years, hepatitis C becomes the cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer. 

How is HCV spread?

HCV is mainly spread by blood-to-blood contact when:

  • sharing needles when injecting drugs, 
  • sharing razors
  • using poorly sterilized medical equipment 
  • blood transfusions. 

In the UK, all donor blood is now screened for HCV and only used if the virus is not present. 

Like HBV, HCV cannot be spread by:

  •  holding hands, hugging or kissing
  • using a toilet seat
  • sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses
  • coughing/sneezing
  • breastfeeding.

Is there a vaccine?

No, there is currently not a vaccine against it HCV.

How to protect yourself from BBVs

To protect yourself from HIV and other BBVs:

  • Use a condom or dental dam when having sex
  • Do not share or handle used injecting equipment or drug taking equipment
  • Do not share razors
  • Always go to a licensed tattoo or piercing premise where the practitioner uses sterilised equipment

More help and information

HIV Scotland is the national HIV policy charity for Scotland. They provide advice, resources, information and training for professionals, affected individuals and organisations in Scotland.

Hepatitis C Scotland provides information for those affected by Hepatitis C, including friends and family of infected individuals.

Hepatitis Scotland is the national voluntary sector organisation funded by the Scottish Government to help improve responses to viral hepatitis prevention, treatment and support.