Hepatitis C (hep C) is liver disease resulting from infection with the hepatitis C virus. While some people can get rid of the virus on their own, 80 percent will develop a lifelong (chronic) infection without treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC indicates that hep C is the leading driver of liver transplants and leading cause of liver cancer.

According to the U.S. Department for Veterans Affairs, hep C is the most common blood infection in the United States, with about 4 million people in the country thought to have chronic hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C is spread when the blood from a person with hep C gets into the body of another person. This can happen in a variety of ways, including through sharing needles when injecting drugs and by receiving a blood transfusion from an unscreened source.

Most people who have hep C are not aware that they are living with the infection. The only way to know is to get tested.

If you fall into any of the following categories, you are at risk for hepatitis C. Talk to your doctor about getting tested:

  • Your mother had hep C before you were born.
  • You use — or have used — intravenous drugs.
  • You are on — or have been on — chronic hemodialysis.
  • You have certain medical conditions such as HIV, AIDS, or chronic liver disease.
  • You have had a blood transfusion from blood donated before 1992.
  • You have had an organ transplant from an organ donated before 1992.
  • You were born between 1945 and 1965.
  • You are a U.S. military veteran who served between 1964 and 1975.
  • You are a safety or health worker who has been exposed to blood while working, for example, via injury with a sharp object or needlestick.
  • You have body piercings or tattoos from nonsterile instruments.
  • You have had 50 or more sex partners.
  • You have liver disease or abnormal liver tests.

Your doctor will test your blood with a hepatitis C antibody test — also called the anti-HCV test — to look for proteins released in your bloodstream in response to infection (antibodies). It can take up to a few weeks to get the results back from the test.

Negative or nonreactive anti-HCV test

If your test results are negative, then you are clear of hep C. If you have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus within six months of getting a negative result, you will need to be tested again.

Positive or reactive anti-HCV test

If your test results are positive or reactive, that means you have contracted the hepatitis C virus at some point in your life. Even if you have cleared the hep C virus, you will always test positive.

Because a positive test always means that you have hep C, your doctor will most likely suggest a follow-up test.

If you have positive or reactive anti-HCV test, your doctor will typically perform an additional blood test to see if you are currently infected. The follow-up test is called an RNA or PCR test. If this test is negative, you are not currently infected with hepatitis C.

If the RNA test is positive, then you are currently infected with hep C and the next step is discussing full diagnosis and treatment options with a doctor with hep C experience.

According to the California Department of Public Health, in most cases, hep C can be cured.

Most people with hep C don’t know they have it. By catching the infection early, you can start treatment before major liver damage occurs.

If you haven’t already been tested and fall into any of the risk categories — including being born between 1945 and 1965 — talk to your doctor about being tested for hep C.