Hepatitis is one of the most common infections worldwide, with 1.5 million people acquiring this infection every year, according to WHO. However, before the infection can be treated, an accurate diagnosis of hepatitis C must be made at the first onset of signs and symptoms.
The diagnosis of hepatitis C includes both clinical and laboratory perimeters. Blood tests are usually the mainstay of diagnosing a hepatitis C infection. A suspected patient's blood is checked for the presence of anti-HCV antibodies, which can confirm either a past infection (resolved or otherwise) or acute, ongoing infection. Antibody testing for hepatitis C is both sensitive and specific and provides an accurate assessment of whether an individual has the infection or not.
Hepatitis C can be both acute and chronic and can be difficult to manage if not diagnosed and treated at the right time. Fortunately, diagnosing and treating hepatitis C is not as hard as it once used to be before the advent of modern medicine.
Testing for Hepatitis C
As mentioned before, there are usually two parameters for accurately diagnosing hepatitis C: clinical and laboratory. Clinical parameters of the diagnosis include accurate history and examination. Your physician will take a detailed history that will include your past medical and drug history and your sexual history. Through your history, your physician will try to isolate any high-risk behaviors that may have exposed you to the virus that causes hepatitis C: Hepatitis C Virus HCV.
The primary route of transmission of this virus is through direct blood-blood contact. Therefore, your doctor will ask questions to evaluate any risk factors that may have exposed you to contaminated blood, like getting a blood transfusion or getting a piercing or a tattoo from a shady place without any sterilized equipment. IV drug users are also at an increased risk of contracting this virus due to needle-sharing.
Healthcare workers are also at an increased risk of contracting the virus because of accidental needle pricks while taking samples from patients. A previous history of hepatitis and some sexually transmitted infections can also increase the risk of developing hepatitis C. Once your doctor has taken a detailed history, they will conduct a detailed general physical and abdominal examination to pick up any signs of hepatitis.
Once the clinical parameters are assessed, and your doctor suspects an active hepatitis C infection, they will order blood tests to confirm the diagnosis.
The mainstay for detecting the hepatitis C virus is testing for the virus in a patient's bloodstream. This blood test looks for antibodies against the hepatitis C virus in the blood. Antibodies are formed in response to infections, and the presence of antibodies in a patient's bloodstream indicates either an active or prior infection with hepatitis C.
Once an antibody test returns positive or reactive, further testing can be done using the hepatitis C RNA and genotype testing. The RNA tests for hepatitis C can detect the viral RNA in a person's blood to confirm the diagnosis. Genotype testing is particularly useful in determining which genotype of virus a person is infected with, so appropriate treatment options can be offered to the patient.
What does a non-reactive HCV antibody test mean?
A non-reactive anti-HCV antibody test simply means that no antibodies against the hepatitis C virus were found in your blood. This means that you do not have an ongoing viral infection, or maybe you had it in the past, but it has been treated, and the virus has been eradicated.
A non-reactive anti-HCV antibody test is, in simple terms, a piece of good news!
What to do if the antibody test is reactive?
If your anti-HCV antibody test returns positive, there are many things you can do. However, the first and foremost thing to do is keep your calm and not get startled.
Hepatitis C sounds dangerous, and it can be life-threatening if it’s not taken care of properly. However, most patients with hepatitis C recover spontaneously without any chronic inflammation or complications.
Even if a person does not recover spontaneously following an acute episode of viral hepatitis C, the treatment available for this infection is highly effective and completely eradicates the virus from the body in the majority of the cases.
The Direct-Acting Antiviral drugs, or the DAAs, have high efficacy against the hepatitis C virus. A course of 8 to 12 weeks taken continuously and without missing a dose can not only just treat your disease but can also eliminate it for good.
The first thing you need to do after being diagnosed with hepatitis C is to talk to your healthcare provider. Understand the disease and ask any relevant questions that you might have from your doctor.
Your doctor will then order a series of investigations to figure out the genotype of the virus, any damage to your liver, the extent of the damage, and some other important parameters. Once the tests are done, and if you are symptomatic, your doctor may prescribe you DAAs for 8-12 weeks.
Even if you are not symptomatic and have only ever suffered just one episode of acute viral hepatitis, it is recommended that you are still treated. All hepatitis C infections should be treated whether they are acute or chronic. Your doctor will ask you to get retested for hepatitis C after 12 weeks to check if the infection has subsided or persisted in your body.
Is Hep C Preventable?
There may not be a vaccine for hepatitis C, but it is a completely preventable viral infection. Since it is a blood-borne virus, the preventions usually focus on avoiding direct exposure to infected blood.
The best way to protect yourself from hepatitis C is to eliminate any high-risk behaviors you might have in your daily life. Following are some of the risk factors that increase your chances of getting infected with the hepatitis C virus:
- IV drug abuse
- Getting tattoos and piercings
- Having unprotected sexual intercourse
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Having other STDs
As you can imagine, steering clear of these high-risk behaviors is an effective way of preventing hepatitis C infection in the first place.