What is being tested?
Hepatitis C (HCV) is a virus that causes an infection of the liver that is marked by liver inflammation and damage. Hepatitis C tests are a group of tests that are performed to diagnose hepatitis C infection and to guide and monitor treatment of the infection.
Hepatitis C tests include:
HCV antibody test—detects antibodies in your blood that are produced in response to an HCV infection
HCV RNA test—detects and measures viral hepatitis C RNA in the blood
HCV genotype test—determines the specific subtype of the virus; this information is useful in guiding treatment.
Hepatitis C is one of five viruses identified so far, including A, B, D, and E, that are known to cause hepatitis.
HCV is spread when contaminated blood enters the body, primarily though sharing needles and syringes during IV drug use. HCV is spread less commonly by sharing personal items contaminated with blood (e.g., razors, toothbrushes), through sex with an infected person, needlestick injuries to healthcare workers, unregulated tattooing, and from mother to baby during pregnancy and childbirth. Before tests for HCV became available in the 1990s, HCV was often transmitted by blood transfusions. Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C.
Acute hepatitis C—for some people, infection with HCV is a short-term illness, usually with few, mild symptoms or no symptoms, and the virus is cleared from the body without specific treatment. Occasionally (about 20 to 30% of the time), this acute stage of infection can cause more severe symptoms, particularly jaundice and fatigue.
Chronic hepatitis C—more than half of people infected develop chronic hepatitis C that, without treatment, can lead to serious, long-term health problems like cirrhosis and liver cancer, and may be fatal. Chronic hepatitis progresses slowly over time, so infected individuals may not be aware they have the condition until it causes enough liver damage to affect liver function.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there were approximately 44,700 cases of acute hepatitis C in the U.S. in 2017 and that there are 2.4 million people in the U.S. living with chronic hepatitis C. Many of these people don’t know they are infected. The only way to know is to get tested for hepatitis C.
If you are diagnosed with hepatitis C, your healthcare practitioner may recommend an antiviral treatment to cure your infection or refer you to a healthcare practitioner who specializes in treating liver diseases or infectious diseases. The HCV RNA test may be repeated prior to starting treatment to determine whether the virus is still present and your infection persists, and also to provide a baseline to compare to during treatment.
There are several antiviral treatments available to treat hepatitis C. While some treat specific types (genotypes) of the virus, there are some that treat all genotypes. Treatment typically involves taking medication by mouth (oral) for about 8 to 12 weeks, although it can be longer in some cases. These medications can cure over 90% of people with chronic hepatitis C with relatively few side effects. Your infection is considered cured if you have no detectable HCV in your blood 12 weeks after completing treatment.