Hepatitis C can be detected using simple blood tests. These blood tests detect and quantify direct and indirect parameters which confirm the presence of the hepatitis C virus in a person’s bloodstream.
The anti-HCV antibody test and the HCV RNA test are blood tests used to detect the presence of the hepatitis C virus or HCV. The anti-HCV antibody test is an indirect measure of HCV and detects only the presence of antibodies against the virus. This test does not differentiate between an active and past infection. The HCV RNA test provides a direct measure of the presence of the hepatitis C virus. The RNA test can also confirm whether the person has an active infection or if the person had an infection in the past which is now resolved.
Other blood tests are also used in conjunction with these two when it comes to diagnosing hepatitis C. However, none of the other blood tests are specific for hepatitis C and are, therefore, used for purposes other than making the diagnosis.
BLOOD TESTS FOR HEPATITIS C
While diagnosing hepatitis C is fairly simple for a physician, the process often involves multiple tests at various stages of the disease. Naturally, different types of tests are employed to assess every parameter of the disease, but the most common tests used for hepatitis C are often blood tests.
Blood tests are used to make an accurate diagnosis of hepatitis C and assess the extent of the disease and the prognosis of the patient. The two most important tests that are used to diagnose hepatitis C accurately are the anti-HCV antibody test and the HCV RNA test.
The anti-HCV antibody test is the initial test of choice when hepatitis C is suspected. This test detects the antibodies that are formed when the virus first steps inside the body. Since the test measures the presence of antibodies and not the virus itself, it is said to provide an indirect measure of the infection. However, the test is fairly specific and sensitive and is always used as the first choice when trying to make a diagnosis of hepatitis C.
The slight problem with the anti-HCV antibody test for hepatitis C is that the test only measures the antibody response. This antibody response could be from a recent infection or a past infection. Therefore, the test cannot discern a recent hepatitis C infection from a past resolved/unresolved hepatitis C infection. This is where the other blood test for hepatitis C comes into play.
The HCV RNA test detects the viral RNA in a patient's blood, directly measuring the infection. This test also quantifies the viral RNA and assesses the patient's viral load.
The HCV RNA test is used when an initial anti-HCV antibody test is positive. This test then differentiates between an active infection and a past infection by assessing the viral load and, thus, the presence of HCV.
Other blood tests for hepatitis C include Liver Function Tests, also called LFTs. LFTs are used to assess liver damage. This test can be used as a first-line test when a patient presents with non-specific symptoms of liver disease. LFTs are also used to evaluate the need for medical therapy in a patient with acute hepatitis C and to assess the patient’s predictive value.
HOW IS HEPATITIS C SCREENING DONE?
Like most diseases, effective screening tests are available to catch hepatitis C before it wreaks havoc inside your body. The preferred screening test for hepatitis C is the anti-HCV antibody test.
Since this test provides an indirect measure of a person’s HCV status, a positive anti-HCV antibody test does not mean that person does, in fact, have hepatitis C. Often, the test is repeated, and further testing is required before an accurate diagnosis can be made.
The CDC recommends that all adults over the age of 18 and all pregnant women undergo hepatitis C screening at least once in their lives. However, some other high-risk groups or individuals should undergo hepatitis C screening. These include:
- People who use injecting needles frequently
- Healthcare professionals who are around needles all-day
- People who frequently get tattoos and piercings
- Those with multiple sexual partners
WHAT ARE THE RISK FACTORS FOR HEPATITIS C?
The hepatitis C virus is transmitted when a person comes into direct contact with contaminated blood. Direct blood-blood contact needs to be established before the transmission of HCV can take place. Therefore, any activity or factor that exposes a person's blood to infected blood is a risk factor. Risk factors for hepatitis C include:
- Sharing IV injecting needles
- Getting tattoos and piercings from unlicensed places
- Accidental needle pricks in healthcare settings
- Sharing personal hygiene products such as razors
- Having frequent unprotected sex with multiple sexual partners
The risk factors listed above do not constitute an exhaustive list, meaning that there may be more risk factors for HCV transmission besides those mentioned above.
Once these risk factors are eliminated, the probability of acquiring a hepatitis C infection drops significantly. Therefore, effective control of these risk factors in your daily life is one of the best ways to protect yourself from this virus. Moreover, getting tested regularly for hepatitis C also provides effective cover against the virus.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LEAVE HEPATITIS C UNTREATED?
If hepatitis C is left untreated, it can either resolve independently or get drastically worse in intensity. An unresolved hepatitis C infection can quickly become chronic and cause extensive liver damage over the course of months to years. Extensive fibrosis of the liver cause liver cirrhosis.
A cirrhotic liver quickly undergoes dysplastic changes, and eventually, hepatocellular carcinoma, or liver cancer, develops. Liver cancer can cause devastating local and distant effects through mass effect, vascular obstruction, and metastasis.
Once the liver is damaged beyond the point of no repair, the only option to protect a person’s life is to get them a liver transplant.