Testing for hepatitis C is important among those at risk, as 50% of people with an infection don’t know they have it. The infection can progress to chronic hepatitis C, resulting in serious complications, such as liver damage, liver failure, and death. There’s an urgent need to diagnose and treat more Americans for hepatitis C, according to the CDC.
This guide provides basic information about hepatitis C, including how the virus is spread, symptoms of an infection, and risks to your health. We also look at options for hepatitis C testing and treatment.
The purpose of hepatitis C testing is to diagnose an infection of the hepatitis C virus in the body. As some people may not experience any symptoms, a blood test is the only reliable way to confirm an infection.
The CDC recommends testing for hepatitis C if you:
A hepatitis C test requires a blood sample, which is screened for the presence of hepatitis C antibodies or the genetic material of the virus (RNA).
No preparation is required for a hepatitis C blood test.
Hepatitis is a disease that affects the liver, a vital organ that processes food into nutrients and filters toxins from the body. If left untreated, hepatitis C can result in liver disease, including cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure. It’s the most common cause of liver transplantation.
The virus is spread through contact with blood or open sores of someone with a hepatitis C infection, via:
There are two types of hepatitis C.
On average, the symptoms of hepatitis C appear after six weeks but may develop as early as two weeks or as long as six months after exposure. Only 20% to 30% of people with the virus experience symptoms, which may include:
There are several blood tests that help diagnose a hepatitis C infection.
A hepatitis C antibody test, also known as an anti-HCV test, screens for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. Antibodies are produced when the immune system detects a virus or bacteria in the body.
A hepatitis C ribonucleic acid (RNA) test, also called a PCR test, is usually performed if an antibody test is positive. It screens for the genetic material of the virus in your blood and measures the number of particles, if any.
The RNA test may also be used during treatment for hepatitis C to monitor improvement.
A positive RNA test is usually followed by a test to determine the genotype of the hepatitis C virus. There are at least six genotypes, numbered 1-6, along with subtypes, such as 1a, 1b, and 1c. Genotype 1 is the most common in the United States, accounting for three-quarters of all cases of hepatitis C. Knowing the genotype of the virus helps your physician determine the best course of treatment.
A hepatitis C test is performed on a blood sample. One option is to visit a lab and have a blood sample collected by a clinician.
If you’re using a home test kit, you can collect a blood sample in the privacy of your own home. This involves pricking your finger with a lancet and collecting drops of blood for testing. The sample is then returned to a lab for processing.
Physicians often wait to see if an acute hepatitis C infection develops into chronic hepatitis C before beginning treatment. There is no recommended treatment for acute hepatitis C, as it tends to clear on its own in 25% of cases.
After six months of infection, hepatitis C is considered to be chronic. Your physician will determine an appropriate treatment plan based on a number of factors, including:
In most cases, antiviral medication in the form of pills is used to treat hepatitis C, with the goal of preventing liver scarring and eliminating the virus from your body. New antiviral medications are continually developed, so it’s best to consult with a doctor regarding an appropriate drug regimen. If diagnosed early enough, hepatitis C is curable in 90% of cases. Treatment is typically required for two to six months.
Additional blood tests are performed during and after treatment to monitor your improvement.
If you have liver damage, you may be referred to a specialist for other types of treatment. This may include medication, surgery, or liver transplantation.
While vaccines are available for hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccination for hepatitis C.
No. There are two ways to order hepatitis C tests online without seeing a doctor:
If your hepatitis C antibody test shows that there are antibodies in your blood, your doctor may request additional tests to determine if the infection is current.
If your hepatitis C RNA test shows that the genetic material of the virus is in your blood, you have a current infection, and your doctor needs to confirm the genotype and whether there’s been damage to your liver. This may include additional blood tests, imaging tests, ultrasounds, or a liver biopsy. Treatment depends on the extent of liver damage if any.
The hepatitis C antibody test can detect antibodies within four to ten weeks. In 97% of cases, it’s able to detect antibodies within six months of exposure.
The hepatitis C RNA or PCR test can detect the genetic material of the virus within two to three weeks of exposure.
Yes, but the risk is considered low. The risk increases if you:
It’s unlikely for hepatitis C to be transmitted through oral sex.
About 10% to 20% of those infected with hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, in 20 to 30 years. Among these, 3% to 6% develop liver failure, and 1% to 5% develop liver cancer.
Yes. If you’ve been infected by hepatitis C and the virus cleared on its own or with treatment, you can still acquire the infection again. It may be the same genotype or a different one.
To learn more about hepatitis C and testing for the hepatitis C virus, use the following resources.
|National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases||www.niddk.nih.gov||Detailed information about hepatitis C|
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention||www.cdc.gov||Hepatitis Risk Assessment (Personalized Report)|
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention||www.cdc.gov||Hepatitis C Patient Education Resources|
|American Liver Foundation||www.liverfoundation.org||Hepatitis C Information Center|
|World Health Organization||www.who.int||Overview of different types of hepatitis.|