Hepatitis C is an infection that can lead to serious liver damage and other health complications. The hepatitis C virus (HCV) that causes the infection is transmitted through exposure to the blood of someone who is infected with the disease.

Getting a blood test that screens for hepatitis C is a good idea if you’re considered at risk for hepatitis C and you’ve been experiencing symptoms. But since symptoms don’t always show up right away, screening can rule out the condition, or help you get the treatment you need if it turns out you’ve been infected.

Who Should Be Tested?

Hepatitis C is often associated with intravenous drug use and the sharing of needles and syringes, but there are other means by which the disease can be transmitted. For example, you may be a healthcare worker who is sometimes exposed to the blood of a patient or blood donor. You might have gotten a tattoo from an unlicensed tattoo artist whose needles may not be sterile. Or, you may have simply received a blood transfusion before 1992, when widespread screening of blood donations for hepatitis C first occurred.

The risk of a hepatitis C infection was significant enough in the 1970s and 1980s that all baby boomers were advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to get tested for hepatitis C. The baby boomer generation includes people born between 1945 and 1965.

Interpreting Test Results

Screening for hepatitis C begins with a blood test that checks for the presence of HCV antibodies. HCV antibodies indicate the presence of the hepatitis C virus. If no HCV antibodies are found, the test result is considered to be “HCV antibody nonreactive.” No further testing or actions are required. However, if you feel strongly that you might have been exposed to HCV, another test may be ordered.

If that first outcome is “HCV antibody reactive,” then a second test is advised. Just because you have HCV antibodies in your bloodstream doesn’t mean you have the virus.

The second test checks for HCV ribonucleic acid (RNA). RNA molecules play a vital role in the expression and regulation of genes. If HCV RNA are detected, you’re currently infected with the hepatitis C virus. If no HCV RNA are found, then you should be fine. A follow-up test may be ordered to determine whether your first “HCV antibody reactive” outcome was a false positive.

If you’re currently infected, you should meet with a doctor soon to plan treatment. Further testing will be done to determine the extent of the disease and whether there has been any damage to your liver. Depending on the nature of your disease, you may or may not immediately begin drug treatment.

However, because you’re infected, you should not donate blood. You should also inform your sexual partners. Your doctor can give you a complete list of other precautions and steps to take. For example, your doctor will need to know all the drugs and supplements you take to make sure that nothing will raise your risk of further liver damage, or interact with medications you may be prescribed to treat the hepatitis.

Testing Procedures and Costs

The test for hepatitis C antibodies, as well as follow-up blood tests, can be done in most labs that perform routine blood work. A regular blood sample will be taken and analyzed. No special steps, such as fasting, are needed on your part.

Many insurance companies cover hepatitis C testing, but you should check with your insurer first to be sure. Many communities offer free or low-cost testing. Check with your doctor’s office or local hospital to find out what’s available near you.

Testing for hepatitis C is simple and no more painful than any other blood test. But if you’re at risk for the disease or fear that you may have been exposed, getting tested—and starting treatment if necessary—can save you serious health problems for years to come.