Infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) causes no symptoms for many people. Anyone who may have it should contact a healthcare professional for testing, and some people benefit from regular screening.

Approximately 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C, and around 80% of people who develop the underlying infection have no symptoms.

In this article, we look into what hepatitis C is and who should have a test. We also describe where to get a test, what to expect, and how to interpret the results.

Pipette and microscope being used in hepatitis C screening.Share on Pinterest
Crispin la valiente/Getty Images

Screening for the virus that causes hepatitis C is available for anyone who requests it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that everyone over the age of 18 gets tested at least once.

Also, they recommend testing during each pregnancy, but say that this may be unnecessary if the amount of HCV in the blood is less than 0.1%, in certain situations.

The CDC recommend one-time screening for:

  • anyone who has used injected drugs, especially if they shared any equipment
  • people with certain health issues, such as those:
    • who have had maintenance hemodialysis
    • who have had organ transplants or blood transfusions
  • children whose birth parent has hepatitis C

The CDC recommend periodic testing for people who currently use injectable drugs, especially if they share equipment. This may also be a good idea for people who have maintenance hemodialysis.

Who else should get tested?

Anyone who has hepatitis C symptoms should speak with a healthcare professional.

The HCV transmits via contact with blood, and it can pass from person to person through:

  • sexual intercourse with someone who has the infection
  • sharing personal items that may have come into contact with blood, such as razors
  • tattooing in conditions that do not meet health and safety standards
  • needle prick accidents in healthcare settings

Anyone who may have come into contact with the HCV should speak with a healthcare professional about having a test.

Initial screening for hepatitis C involves taking the HCV antibody test, which can show whether a person has ever had the infection.

These antibodies are chemicals in the bloodstream that the body makes to combat the HCV. The test checks the blood for these antibodies.

For 30% of people with the infection, the body clears the virus within 6 months — without treatment.

Once the body makes these antibodies, they remain detectable, even after the person has cleared the infection.

If a test shows that the HCV antibodies are present, the healthcare professional will perform a second test. This is called a nucleic acid test, and it can confirm whether the person still has the infection. If so, it is called a “chronic” infection.

When does the test give a result?

It can take 8–11 weeks for an HCV antibody test to return a result. Some clinics offer rapid HCV tests, however, and these give results in 20–30 minutes.

Where can a person get tested?

A person can have an HCV antibody test at a primary care physician’s office, a clinic, or a local laboratory.

Costs vary, depending on whether a person has insurance and which pharmacy they use. Some pharmaceutical companies cover copayments and provide the treatment for free.

Medicare covers testing costs for people:

  • with a high risk of hepatitis C
  • who had blood infusions before 1992
  • who were born between 1945 and 1965

The Department of Veterans Affairs covers most of the associated costs for veterans enrolled in its healthcare program.

The healthcare professional who ordered the test should explain the results in detail, as well as the next steps, if treatment is necessary.

The following table describes several outcomes of an HCV test, according to information from the CDC:

Test resultWhat it meansFurther action
HCV antibody nonreactiveNo HCV was detected.There is no need to do anything else.
HCV antibody reactiveThe person once had or currently has the infection.The person needs a second test to confirm whether they have a current infection.
HCV antibody reactive, HCV RNA detectedThis means that the person has the infection.The doctor will provide counseling and treatment.
HCV antibody reactive, HCV RNA undetectedThe person does not have the infection.Usually, there is no need for further action, but the doctor may recommend the second test.

The second test mentioned above is called a nucleic acid test. It detects a current infection by checking whether there is any of the virus’s RNA in the blood.

Hepatitis C is a liver disease that results from an HCV infection. The virus passes on through contact with blood from someone who has the infection.

Hepatitis C can be acute or chronic. Chronic hepatitis C can lead to more serious complications, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.

After contracting the infection, nearly 80% of people have no symptoms. Any symptoms typically take 2–12 weeks to appear.

In order of most to least common, hepatitis C symptoms include:

  • joint pain
  • tingling or other unusual sensations
  • muscle pain
  • itchiness
  • dry mouth

More general symptoms of liver disease include:

  • redness of the hands
  • jaundice, which is the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
  • enlargement of the abdomen
  • swelling of the legs
  • dark urine

Anyone with any of the above symptoms should make an appointment with a healthcare professional.

Treatments for hepatitis C vary. If a person has never had hepatitis C treatment before, a healthcare professional will prescribe antiviral medication.

The treatment might involve direct-acting antiviral medications, which can cure chronic hepatitis C in many people.

Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C can lead to serious complications, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Learn more about treating hepatitis C here.

Many people with hepatitis C have no symptoms. This is why it is a good idea for people to have at least one test for HCV, the virus that causes this condition.

HCV screening is available for anyone who requests it, and some people may benefit from regular testing.

Anyone who has received treatment for hepatitis C should have periodic check-ups, even after their body has cleared the virus.

It is important to note that a person can get the infection more than once.

Read this article in Spanish.