Hepatitis C is an inflammation of the liver that may present in both acute and chronic forms. The inflammation is caused by a virus aptly known as the hepatitis C virus.
Often the signs and symptoms of both acute and chronic hepatitis can be inconclusive and, thus, require lab tests to confirm the suspicion. Sometimes, acute hepatitis C may even exist without any signs and symptoms and quietly go on to become a chronic infection. Therefore, testing for hepatitis C is necessary to eliminate the possibility of a long-standing, treatable infection that may cause more damage if left undiagnosed and untreated.
Testing for hepatitis C is simple and primarily relies on simple blood testing methods. Detection of antibodies against the virus and the presence of viral RNA is usually confirmatory for hepatitis. However, the need for a test may not always be apparent in both acute and chronic settings.
Why would your doctor order a Hepatitis C test?
As mentioned above, hepatitis C tests are ordered quite simply to diagnose hepatitis C. Simple blood tests are usually confirmatory as they provide evidence of an active or a past viral infection through the presence of antibodies.
However, the infection may go undetected for months or even years.
Your doctor will most commonly order hepatitis C tests when you have signs and symptoms of the disease. However, getting tested yearly despite having signs or symptoms can help diagnose the infection early. Signs and symptoms of acute and chronic hepatitis C are different, and sometimes they may even differ in the same setting from person to person. However, some constitutional symptoms, along with some physical findings, may warrant the need for a confirmatory test.
Symptoms of hepatitis C include:
- Abdominal tenderness
- Loss of appetite
- Dark-colored urine
- Pale stools
- Nausea and vomiting
These symptoms may differ for every individual and may not be present in some individuals even during the acute phase of the disease. However, one or two symptoms from the list above coupled with some physical findings on abdominal and general physical exams may incline your doctor towards suspecting hepatitis C. Thus; your doctor will order diagnostic tests to either confirm or rule out hepatitis C based on your symptoms.
When there are no apparent signs or symptoms of hepatitis C in an individual, the infection may persist for months or even years before finally becoming apparent. These individuals are often diagnosed incidentally when getting screened for hepatitis C during routine physical workups.
Currently, in the United States, the screening recommendations for hepatitis C are in place for the following demographics:
- Testing for adults 18 or older
- Testing for pregnant mothers
- The young population at an acquired or inherent risk of developing the disease
- Repeat screening for adults with ongoing risk for hepatitis C
Another way hepatitis C is often discovered incidentally is through pre-op assessments of surgical candidates. Patients who require surgery for any reason are tested for hepatitis C as part of their normal pre-operation evaluation panel. Therefore, your doctor may order a hepatitis C test if your surgical fitness is being evaluated prior to a major surgical procedure.
Why should I get tested for Hepatitis C?
Getting tested for hepatitis C is essential for many reasons. The primary reason for most people getting tested for hepatitis C is that they develop some signs and symptoms of the disease. However, hepatitis is sneaky and, occasionally, may not present with any symptoms initially.
If you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, getting tested for hepatitis C is the best thing you can do for both yourself and the people around you. However, before we delve deep into the reasons you should get tested for hepatitis, you need to be aware of some risk factors that may increase your chances of getting the disease. These risk factors include:
- IV drug abuse
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Not using condoms during sex
- Getting tattoos and piercings
If you have any of these risk factors, it is always good to get tested for hepatitis C because you can still have the disease even if you feel perfectly fine. The test is fast, cheap, and convenient. Home testing kits are also available, eliminating the need to go to a doctor altogether.
Prompt diagnosis and early treatment can treat the disease and eliminate it. Early treatment can also drastically lower the chances of developing a chronic infection, liver cirrhosis, and even liver cancer. Moreover, you can also keep your family safe by taking appropriate measures if you have been diagnosed with hepatitis C.
What kind of hepatitis tests are available?
Multiple blood tests are available to accurately diagnose hepatitis C. the most commonly used blood test to confirm a diagnosis of hepatitis is the viral antibody test. This test is also known as the anti-HCV antibody test, as it literally detects the presence of anti-HCV antibodies in a patient’s blood.
Hepatitis viral RNA tests are also useful in order to differentiate between an ongoing and a past viral hepatitis infection.
Genotype testing is also required, which can help your doctor figure out which strain of hepatitis virus has infected your liver. Figuring out the exact genotype of the virus helps greatly in treating the infection.
What does a reactive or a non-reactive Hepatitis C test mean?
A reactive hepatitis C antibody test indicates that antibodies against the hepatitis C virus have been detected in your blood. This can mean one of the two things: either you have an ongoing infection with HCV, or you've had it at some point in the past, and now it's either resolved or turned chronic.
Conversely, a non-reactive hepatitis C test means that you do not have hepatitis.
Keep in mind that a Hep C test will always test reactive after treatment. A viral RNA test is usually employed after a reactive antibody test to determine if the antibodies are present in response to a current infection or a past infection.