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.

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

For example, you may be a healthcare worker who’s regularly exposed to other people’s blood. You might’ve gotten a tattoo from an unlicensed tattoo artist whose needles may not be sterile. You may have simply received a blood transfusion before 1992, when widespread screening of blood donations for hepatitis C first began.

The risk of contracting hepatitis C was significant enough in the 1970s and 1980s that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises all baby boomers to get tested for it. The baby boomer generation includes people born between 1945 and 1965.

Other factors may increase a person’s chance of contracting hepatitis C. 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.

HCV antibody nonreactive result

Screening for hepatitis C begins with a blood test that checks for the presence of HCV antibodies. HCV antibodies indicate exposure to the virus at some point in the past.

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, then a second test is advised. Just because you have HCV antibodies in your bloodstream doesn’t mean you’ve contracted hepatitis C.

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, you don’t have HCV.

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, meet with a healthcare provider soon 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.

Because you have hepatitis C, don’t donate blood. Also inform your sexual partners. Your doctor can give you a complete list of other precautions and steps to take, too. 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 condition.

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, getting tested — and starting treatment if necessary — can save you serious health problems for years to come.