Diagnosing hepatitis C with the hepatitis C antibody test
Hepatitis C is a virus that damages the liver. If left untreated, it can lead to liver disease and other serious long-term health problems.
Many people do not realize that they have hepatitis C. There are specific risk factors for contracting the virus, such as age and exposure to blood or bodily fluids.
What is the hepatitis C antibody test?
A blood sample will be required for a hepatitis C antibody test.
The antibody test is a blood test to check for infection with the hepatitis C virus.
An antibody is a protein made by the body to protect against bacteria and disease. Antibodies can detect substances that could cause harm to health.
The medical term for these harmful substances is an antigen. When an antibody recognizes an antigen, it will destroy it or stop it traveling further into the body.
Antibodies are specific to a particular bacteria or disease, and they stay in the body after someone has been infected. This means that the antibodies should be able to fight off the same disease in future.
The hepatitis C antibody test checks for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. If there are antibodies in the body, it means that a person has been infected with the virus at some point. However, it does not always mean that they still have the virus.
A medical professional will take a small sample of blood to be sent away for testing. The results may take a few days or weeks to come back.
What do the results mean?
There are two results from a hepatitis C antibody test.
- A non-reactive or negative test result means that the person does not have the virus. The exception is if someone has come into contact with the virus recently, such as through contaminated blood. If this is the case, they will need to have another test.
- A reactive or positive test result means that the person has had the virus at some point but does not mean that they still have it. Further tests will be needed to check whether the virus is still active in the body and if treatment will be required.
What happens next?
After a diagnosis, further tests will be carried out to determine the impact of the hepatitis C virus on the body.
Once diagnosed with hepatitis C, a person will need to undergo a series of different tests to see how the virus has affected their body.
These tests will check for any liver damage, identify how well the liver is working, and help a healthcare professional to decide on treatment.
Hepatitis C is treated with medication known as an antiviral. It gets this name because it aims to clear the virus out of the body.
A person with hepatitis C will require regular testing during treatment to see how well the medication is working. Keeping healthy, getting enough sleep, and avoiding drugs and alcohol can help treatment to work.
Finding out about a diagnosis of hepatitis C may be complicated or confusing. The American Liver Foundation offer information, support, and advice for people who have the virus.
Other hepatitis C tests
After an individual has received a reactive or positive result from a hepatitis C antibody test, they will need to have two follow-up tests.
The first test checks to see whether a person still has the virus; the other measures the amount of the virus in the blood.
The first test is the hep C RNA qualitative test, also known as the PCR test. A positive result means that a person has the hepatitis C virus. A negative result means that the body has cleared the virus without treatment.
The second test is the hep C RNA quantitative test. The result of this test is given as a number rather than a positive or negative. This is because the test compares the amount of the virus in the body before, during, and after treatment.
The number given as a result of this test is known as the viral load. The lower amount of the hepatitis C virus in the blood, the better the chances that a person can eliminate the virus from their body.
After hepatitis C virus is diagnosed, other tests may be needed:
- Hepatitis A and B testing. If a person has not previously been exposed to these forms of the virus, they can have a vaccination to protect them against it.
- Testing to find out which strain of hepatitis C someone has. There are three common strains in the United States, and treatment is slightly different for each one. This is known as a hepatitis C genotype test.
- Liver function tests. These will check how inflamed or damaged the liver might be.
- Imaging tests. Taking pictures of the liver can show if a person has liver cancer.
Who should get tested?
Baby boomers are advised to get tested for hepatitis C, as they are at particular risk of having the virus.
Certain behaviors, experiences, and medical procedures increase the risk of getting the hepatitis C virus, which is transmitted by contact with blood.
The following are risk factors for contracting the virus:
- having HIV
- using needles to inject drugs
- having multiple sexual partners, or a sexual partner who has chronic hepatitis C
- having had an organ transplant or received a blood donation before 1992
- working in healthcare and being exposed to blood or bodily fluids
- having had hemodialysis, a process that filters the blood
- being treated for a bleeding disorder with blood proteins before 1987
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise all baby boomers get tested for hepatitis C. Baby boomers are people born between 1945 and 1965. They are five times more likely to have the virus than other adults.
It is not clear why baby boomers have higher rates of hepatitis C infection than the rest of the population. At present, researchers think that it could be due to the standard of medical practice in the past, before the introduction of screening and infection control measures.
Hepatitis C is a serious virus that can cause significant damage to the body. The earlier the virus is found, the better the chances of treating it.
People who have had exposure to risk factors or are in a high-risk group should seek testing.
Understanding what a positive or negative result means is important. A person should ask a medical professional for a clear explanation and advice if they are unsure.