Key points

  • Screening for hepatitis C begins with a blood test that checks for the presence of HCV antibodies.
  • Tests for hepatitis C are typically done in labs that perform routine blood work. A regular blood sample will be taken and analyzed.
  • HCV antibodies shown in test results indicate the presence of the hepatitis C virus.
Healthline

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that can lead to serious liver damage and other health complications.

The hepatitis C virus (HCV) that causes the condition is transmitted through exposure to the blood of someone who has HCV.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of hepatitis C or think you may be at risk, discuss getting a blood test with your doctor.

Since symptoms don’t always show up right away, screening can rule out the condition or help you get the treatment you need.

An HCV antibody test is used to determine whether you’ve contracted the hepatitis C virus.

The test looks for antibodies, which are proteins made by the immune system that are released into the bloodstream when the body detects a foreign substance, such as a virus.

HCV antibodies indicate exposure to the virus at some point in the past. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to get results back.

There are two possible outcomes to an HCV antibody test. The blood panel will either show that you have a nonreactive result or a reactive result.

HCV antibody nonreactive result

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’ve been exposed to HCV, another test may be ordered.

HCV antibody reactive result

If the first test outcome is HCV antibody reactive, a second test is advised. Just because you have HCV antibodies in your bloodstream doesn’t mean you have hepatitis C.

NAT for HCV RNA

The second test checks for HCV ribonucleic acid (RNA). RNA molecules play a vital role in the expression and regulation of genes. The results of this second test are as follows:

  • If HCV RNA is detected, you currently have HCV.
  • If no HCV RNA is found, that means you have a history of HCV and have cleared the infection, or the test was a false positive.

A follow-up test may be ordered to determine whether your first HCV antibody reactive outcome was a false positive.

After diagnosis

If you do have hepatitis C, schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider as soon as possible to plan treatment.

Further testing will be done to determine the extent of the disease and whether there’s been any damage to your liver.

Depending on the nature of your case, you may or may not immediately begin drug treatment.

If you have hepatitis C, there are certain steps that you need to take immediately, including do not donate blood and inform your sexual partners.

Your doctor can give you a complete list of other steps and precautions 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 for further liver damage or interact with medications you may be taking.

The test for HCV 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 check with your insurer first to be sure.

Many communities offer free or low-cost testing, too. 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 think you may have been exposed to the virus, getting tested — and starting treatment if necessary — can help prevent serious health problems for years to come.

The CDC recommends that all adults ages 18 years and older should be screened for hepatitis C except in settings where the prevalence of HCV infection is less than 0.1%.

Also, all pregnant women should be screened during each pregnancy, except in setting where the prevalence of HCV infection is less than 0.1%.

Hepatitis C is often associated with sharing needles. But there are other methods of transmission.

For example, healthcare workers who are regularly exposed to other people’s blood are at higher risk for contracting the virus.

Getting a tattoo from an unlicensed tattoo artist or facility where needles may not be properly sterilized also increases the risk of transmission.

Prior to 1992, when widespread screening of blood donations for hepatitis C first began, HCV could likely be transmitted via blood transfusions and organ transplants.

Other factors may increase the chance of contracting HCV. If any of the following apply to you, the Mayo Clinic suggests screening for hepatitis C:

  • You have abnormal liver function.
  • Any of your sexual partners have received a diagnosis of hepatitis C.
  • You’ve received a diagnosis of HIV.
  • You’ve been incarcerated.
  • You’ve undergone long-term hemodialysis.

Treatment is recommended for everyone who tests positive for hepatitis C, including children ages 3 years and older, as well as adolescents.

Current treatments usually involve about 8–12 weeks of oral therapy, which cures over 90 percent of people diagnosed with hepatitis C, causing few side effects.