Hepatitis C Testing
Hepatitis C is a viral infection. It's transmitted primarily by blood contact, typically through sharing needles during drug use. Less commonly, the disease can be transmitted during contact of a sexual nature. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 3.5 million people in America have hepatitis C. However, since many people have the disease and don't realize it, the actual number could range from 2.5 to 4.7 million.
- 1 An estimated 3.5 million people in the U.S. have hepatitis C, though many don’t know they have it.
- 2 Hepatitis C is primarily transmitted via blood contact, typically through sharing needles during drug use.
- 3 The incubation period is between two weeks to 6 months, meaning how long the virus can be carried without any symptoms.
- 4 The CDC reports that 90% of all chronic cases can be cured in up to 10 weeks with oral medications.
Published January 15, 2020
Written by Sarah Stasik
Hepatitis C can be acute or chronic. Acute hepatitis occurs when you’ve had the disease for less than six months. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 15 to 25% of people with acute hepatitis C will get over the disease even without treatment. Many others can be treated. However, if the disease persists beyond six months, it’s considered chronic hepatitis C. That puts you at risk for liver damage and diseases, which can be fatal.
Since up to 80% of people with acute hepatitis don’t experience any symptoms, it can be hard to catch and treat the disease without the right testing. This guide provides information about how hepatitis C testing works, who should get tested, and when. It also covers some basics about the symptoms people do report as well as treatment for the condition.
|Infectious Organism||Hepatitis C virus|
|Other Commonly Used Names||Hep C, HCV|
|Testing Collection Method||Blood draw or drop collection|
|Transmission||Through contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids||Prevention||Avoid sharing needles and drug equipment
Avoid unregulated tattoo establishments
Use safety precautions when handling bodily fluid
Cover open sores or cuts
Practice safe sex, abstinence, or mutual monogamy
Overview of Hepatitis C Testing
Purpose of a Hepatitis C Test
The purpose of a hepatitis C test is to determine whether or not you have the HCV infection. If you are at risk of exposure to hep C, testing is important because the disease so often doesn’t cause any symptoms, especially early on.
When Should You Get a Hepatitis C Test?
The CDC provides recommendations about who should be tested for hepatitis C, saying that you should consider talking to your medical provider about a test if you meet any of the following criteria.
- Your birth year falls between 1945 and 1965
- You received blood or a donated organ prior to 1992
- You have received abnormal results for any type of liver tests
- You have a liver disease
- You are on hemodialysis
- You have a medical condition, such as HIV, that could impact your liver
- You have ever injected drugs
- You’re a health care worker who was exposed to blood while treating a patient
The CDC also notes that children born to a mother who tested positive for hepatitis C should also be tested.
What Type of Sample Is Required?
Hepatitis C tests require a blood sample. If you’re tested in a medical environment, a professional technician or nurse will conduct the draw or obtain the blood for the test. You can also use a home test approved by the FDA. It requires that you collect a small drop of your own blood.
How Do You Prepare for a Hepatitis C Test?
You don’t have to prepare specifically for a hep c test. However, when speaking to your doctor about the test, it’s a good idea to provide honest answers about medical history, potential exposure to hep C, and any drugs you are taking, whether prescription or otherwise. An accurate medical history can help your doctor better understand your HCV test results.
How Hepatitis C Infections Work
The primary way this disease is transmitted is through bodily fluids. Typically, the blood or other fluid of a person who is infected with hepatitis C must enter your own bloodstream for transmission to occur. That can happen via sexual contact, sharing needles, blood donations, and through sharing certain items, such as razors. However, the last two methods of transmission are rare.
The incubation period for hep C is two weeks to around 6 months. That’s how long you can carry the virus before you experience any symptoms — if you experience symptoms at all. During the acute phase, which is the first six months you have hepatitis C, only up to 30% of people do experience symptoms. Between 75% and 85% of people who contract hep C will move from the acute phase into a chronic phase if they aren’t treated. Up to 20% of people with untreated chronic hep C infection will develop cirrhosis, which is a chronic liver disease.
The Symptoms of Hepatitis C
For the three in 10 people who do experience symptoms of acute hep C, the symptoms can include:
- Darker-than-normal urine
- Stool that is clay-colored
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting or nausea
- Pain in joints
- Abdominal pain
The symptoms of chronic hepatitis C are even less specific. People may feel depressed or chronically fatigued, but otherwise people can remain without symptoms for years. Many times, says the CDC, people only find out they have hep C when they try to donate blood (and are screened for this disease) or have a routine medical checkup that involves blood work that clues a doctor in to a liver problem.
Testing for Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is tested via blood work. One test is called an antibody test. It looks for evidence of antibodies in your blood that signal your body is mounting a defense against HCV. The test can detect the antibodies in between 50% and 70% of people as soon as symptoms begin. It can detect the antibodies in 90% of people three months or more after the infection was contracted.
Another common test for hep c is called the hepatitis C PCR Test. This looks for genetic material in your blood that indicates HCV is present. The test typically works starting one to two weeks after exposure to the virus.
Where Can You Get Tested for Hep C?
You can talk to your medical provider about hep C testing since this is a common test performed in clinics, hospitals, and office labs. You can also order a home HCV test.
For free or low-cost testing options, you can also search the CDC’s database of testing sites near you. Locations that provide hep C testing include certain drug stores and clinics, state and local health departments, free clinics, and Planned Parenthood locations.
How Does Home Testing Work?
Home hep C tests require you to collect a small sample of your blood, but you don’t have to do a blood draw like you might experience in a clinical setting. Instead, the kits contain a lancet. This is the same type of item that diabetics use to prick their fingers to get a drop of blood for blood glucose readings.
You prick your skin and produce a drop of blood. You then place the drop on a special piece of paper included in your home test kit. That paper, with your blood, is enclosed in a container that’s also provided in the kit. You then complete any documents and mail the entire kit back to the lab for analysis.
Treatment for Hepatitis C
According to the CDC, treatment for acute hepatitis may be considered depending on your situation and overall health. Since up to 25% of the time, hep C goes away on its own at this stage, doctors may forgo treatment until the six-month mark.
Once hep C is considered chronic, it can usually be treated and cured. The CDC reports that 90% of all cases can be cured in up to 10 weeks with oral medications.
Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
How is a hepatitis C test used?
Hep C tests are used to determine whether someone has hepatitis C so treatment decisions can be made. Since the disease often comes with no symptoms, testing is the only reliable way to know whether you have hep C.
How can I order a hepatitis C test?
You can order a hepatitis C test from a number of online testing labs as well as select drug store retailers. You do not typically need a prescription to buy a test kit. According to the FDA, home tests are around as accurate as tests in doctor’s offices, assuming the sample was properly collected.
What should you do if you test positive for hepatitis C?
A positive result for hepatitis C means that you may be infected with HCV, though it’s not 100% accurate. It’s important to schedule an appointment with a medical practitioner if you have a positive result to determine if you do, indeed, have hep C and what steps you should consider taking to deal with it.
What does a negative result for hepatitis C mean?
A negative result on a hep C test means you likely do not have hepatitis C. If you get a negative result and you still experience any of the symptoms related to hep C, you may want to consider seeing your doctor anyway. He or she can help you rule out other medical causes for the way you’re feeling.
How long does it take to get results from a hepatitis C test?
The CDC reports that rapid tests are available in some clinical settings. These tests can produce results in as little as 30 minutes, which means you can know your status during your appointment. Home tests have to be mailed to the lab and processed before results are received, and that can take around a week on average.
- Getting Tested for Hepatitis C. The American Liver Foundation provides a guide to hep C testing that has some good information and is targeted to baby boomers in particular.
- Guide to Hepatitis C Testing. The American College of Physicians and Institute for Hepatitis C provides an in-depth guide to testing geared toward professionals that might have additional information of interest.
- Testing Recommendations for Hepatitis C Virus Infection. The CDC provides an easy-to-scan document with all of the basic details about who should get tested.
- Sources [-]
https://www.hhs.gov/hepatitis/learn-about-viral-hepatitis/data-and-trends/index.htm. Accessed November 2019.
https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/cfaq.htm#B1. Accessed November 2019.
https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/home-use-tests/hepatitis-c. Accessed November 2019.
https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/resources/professionals/pdfs/abctable.pdf. Accessed November 2019.
https://gettested.cdc.gov/. Accessed November 2019.