A hepatitis panel is a blood test that doctors use to diagnose hepatitis. Hepatitis refers to a group of viral liver diseases, including hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.

The blood test will typically include tests for three common types of hepatitis. If a person receives a positive result, they currently have or previously had one of these diseases.

This article will explain what a hepatitis panel is, what it involves, and what the results mean. We will also look at what happens next if a person receives a positive test result.

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The test works by detecting antigens and antibodies. These are substances that the body produces in response to an infection.

The specific type of antigen or antibody the test identifies can tell doctors which hepatitis virus someone has. The three most common types are:

Hepatitis A typically causes a short-term illness with no permanent liver damage. However, hepatitis B and C can become chronic and may cause liver damage if left untreated.

Those with HCV antibodies may also have an RNA test. RNA tests measure the amount of HCV that is currently in a person’s bloodstream. This can confirm the presence of an active HCV infection and also determines a person’s viral load.

In addition to a hepatitis panel, a doctor may run other tests to measure the virus’s impact on the body. These include liver function tests, which can help a doctor assess if a person has liver damage, as well as:

Hepatitis panels are simple blood tests. They do not involve any preparation and have a very low risk of side effects.

To perform the test, a healthcare professional will insert a needle into a vein in the arm. They will collect a small blood sample in a test tube and seal it. The needle may sting a little, but the process takes only a few minutes. A person may feel a small amount of pain or bruising around the vein, but this should subside quickly.

People can also get at-home testing kits for hepatitis. These come with a sterile lancet that a person uses to prick their finger to collect the blood sample.

When using at-home kits, be sure to take safety precautions to prevent others from coming into contact with blood. Even dry blood or tiny amounts of blood can potentially transmit HBV or HCV to others.

Dispose of items that come into contact with blood in a sealed bag and wash the blood from the skin using soap. Completely cover the finger prick wound with a sterile dressing until it heals.

People with symptoms of liver damage may need a hepatitis panel to try and determine the cause. The signs of liver damage include:

However, in many cases, hepatitis does not cause any noticeable symptoms. Because of this, people who are at risk for hepatitis or believe they may have had exposure to a hepatitis virus should seek testing.

This could include people who:

  • inject drugs or share needles with others
  • have a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • have HIV
  • are in close contact with someone who has hepatitis
  • were born to a parent with HCV
  • are receiving long-term dialysis
  • are men who have sex with men
  • have received tattoos or piercings from unlicensed or unsanitary practitioners
  • were born between 1945–1965
  • were born in a country where more than 2% of the population have hepatitis B and have not had a vaccination
  • spent time in a facility that had a hepatitis outbreak, such as a hospital or prison
  • received a blood transfusion that did not undergo hepatitis screening

In the United States, screening eliminated HCV from donated blood in 1992. People who received blood transfusions before 1992 should ask their doctor for a hepatitis C test.

The results of hepatitis panels are typically reliable, but they do not always provide a conclusive result.

Negative result

If the hepatitis panel does not identify any antigens or antibodies, then the person having the test is unlikely to have hepatitis. The main exception to this is if a doctor performs the blood test too early.

There is a window of time after a person first contracts a hepatitis virus where a blood test cannot detect antibody and antigen levels because they are too low. These are:

  • around 3–4 weeks for HAV
  • about 2–6 weeks for HBV
  • anywhere from 6–12 weeks to 6 months for HCV

As long as a doctor performs the test after these amounts of time have passed after potential exposure to a hepatitis virus, the result will be reliable.

Positive result

If a hepatitis panel detects antigens or antibodies for a hepatitis virus, this means the person either has an active infection or that they once had one in the past.

Hepatitis antibodies remain in the blood even after the infection is over. So, hepatitis panels can confirm if someone had hepatitis at some point, but they do not always prove there is a current infection.

In the case of HAV, a positive antibody test does not necessarily mean a person currently has hepatitis A. This is because, in most cases, hepatitis A only lasts a few weeks or months. It does not cause a chronic infection.

If a person tests positive for HBV or HCV antibodies, a doctor may schedule follow-up tests to determine if they have an active infection.

The following sections outline what may happen next if a person tests positive for hepatitis antibodies or antigens.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A causes an acute infection. Most people with hepatitis A recover without any lasting damage to the liver. There is no medication for the disease, but doctors can provide treatment to relieve any symptoms.

Hepatitis B

If a person tests positive for HBV antibodies, doctors will provide supportive care and monitor for signs of a chronic infection. There is no cure for acute or chronic hepatitis B, but antiviral drugs that can prevent the progression of hepatitis B and prevent complications, such as liver failure or liver cancer.

The CDC indicates that 6–10% of older children and adults develop chronic hepatitis B. For unvaccinated infants, this figure is around 90%. Those with chronic cases require regular monitoring for signs of liver damage.

Hepatitis C

Doctors typically follow up a positive HCV antibody test with an RNA test. If this confirms a person has a current HCV infection, they should begin treatment as soon as possible. Direct-acting antiviral drugs can clear HCV in 90% of people in 8–12 weeks.

Some questions people may want to ask a doctor about their hepatitis panel include:

  • How reliable is this test?
  • What do the results prove?
  • How soon will I get the results?
  • Will I need follow-up tests? If so, what are they?
  • If I test positive, what treatments are available?
  • How effective are the treatments?
  • How can I monitor for signs of complications or progression?

Hepatitis panels are blood tests that detect the presence of hepatitis-specific antibodies and antigens. These are substances the body makes in response to the hepatitis viruses. A positive result means someone has or has previously had one of the viruses that cause hepatitis.

Depending on the results, a doctor may treat a person’s symptoms until the infection clears or carry out further tests. If those tests indicate a chronic hepatitis infection, a person may require antiviral treatment.