Hepatitis C Screening: What to Know

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Hepatitis C is a viral infection that can cause significant liver damage. Anyone of any age can get hepatitis C. Unborn babies can develop the infection during gestation.

Chronic hepatitis C is often asymptomatic, meaning many people don’t know they have it. Unlike hepatitis A and hepatitis B, there’s no vaccine that protects you against hepatitis C. That’s why screening is so important, especially for at-risk people.

Hepatitis C screening is done via one or more simple blood tests. In this article, we’ll talk about who should get tested. We’ll also go into detail about the various screening tests for hepatitis C and what their results mean.

There are several blood tests used to screen for hepatitis C.

HCV antibody test

If you’ve ever had hepatitis C — even if you didn’t know it — you’ll have antibodies to the virus in your blood. This blood test looks for HCV antibodies. You’ll get one of two results:

  • Non-reactive. If you get a non-reactive (negative) result, you don’t have hepatitis C. If you know you’ve been exposed to the virus, your doctor will want to retest you in several months, even if your first test was negative.
  • Reactive. If you get a reactive (positive) result, you’ve gotten hepatitis C at some point in your life or during gestation. A positive result to the HCV test requires additional testing to determine whether you have an active infection. On its own, this test doesn’t indicate whether you currently have hepatitis C

NAT for HCV RNA (also called a PCR test)

This follow-up test is for people who get a reactive result to the HCV antibody test. It will let you know whether you currently have hepatitis C. Virus particles can be detected in blood 1 to 2 weeks after infection. You’ll get one of two results:

  • Negative. You don’t currently have hepatitis C, and no additional testing is necessary.
  • Positive. You currently have the virus and will need treatment.

HCV genotype test

If you test positive to the NAT for HCV RNA test, your doctor may order this blood test. It tells you which specific subtype of the virus you’ve contracted. This test can be helpful for determining which medication will be most beneficial for you.

At-home screening tests provide privacy if you prefer not to go to a doctor or clinic for testing. These tests typically look for antibodies to hepatitis C, but they may not always test for active viral infection. Make sure you know what type of test you’ll be taking before you buy.

Many at-home tests have close to or the same reliability as blood tests received by a medical professional.

If you’ve recently been exposed to hepatitis C, wait several weeks before testing at home.

How home testing works

A home testing kit will provide a lancet that you will use to perform a finger prick. You’ll mail your sample in a biohazard bag to a laboratory for testing. There may be a wait time to get results.

Cost of home testing

At-home tests can cost anywhere from $50 to $400 or more and aren’t typically covered by insurance.

Home testing recommendations and next steps

  1. Only use a home test kit that’s HIPAA-compliant.
  2. Only use a home test kit that’s physician-reviewed.
  3. Positive home test results should be followed up with a doctor’s appointment.

If you’re under 18, you may or may not need a parent’s or guardian’s consent to get tested. State laws on minor consent for medical care vary. If you’ve been exposed to hepatitis C or feel that you need a test for any reason, don’t let your age stop you from getting the medical help you need.

If left untreated, hepatitis C can have serious consequences for your health. If you test positive, you can also pass the virus onto others.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source recommends universal hepatitis C screening for:

  • all adults aged 18 and over (at least once in a lifetime)
  • pregnant people (may be as often as once per pregnancy, based on your doctor’s recommendations)

High-risk categories

No matter your age, get tested as often as possible if:

  • you were born before 1966 (this age group is considered high risk because they were born before healthcare facilities instated current-day standards for hygiene)
  • you’re HIV positive
  • you use or have ever used intravenous drugs
  • you receive or have ever received hemodialysis
  • your alanine aminotransferase (ALT) liver damage blood tests consistently come back positive
  • you received an organ transplant, blood transfusion, or blood products before 1992
  • you were given clotting factor concentrates produced before 1987
  • you’ve been informed by a medical facility that you received blood from a donor who later tested positive for hepatitis C
  • your biological mother had hepatitis C when she gave birth to you
  • your job puts you at risk for infection

  • HCV antibody test. The results of the HCV test may take anywhere from 1 day to several weeks to get back, based upon the laboratory doing the testing.
  • Rapid anti-HCV test. In some instances, your doctor may give you a rapid anti-HCV test instead of a standard HCV antibody test. The rapid test gives in-office results in 30 minutes or less. Ask your provider if you can choose which test to take.
  • NAT for HCV RNA test and HCV genotype test. These results may take anywhere from one day to several weeks to get back, based upon the testing facility used.

Hepatitis C screening is covered by most insurance plans. You may have an out-of-pocket copay. If you don’t have insurance, each blood test will cost around $100 or more.

If the cost of testing or treatment for hepatitis C is prohibitive, there are places you can go for help or financial support:

Hepatitis C often has no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include:

  • dark urine
  • jaundice
  • itchy skin
  • bleeding or bruising easily
  • distended abdomen caused by fluid buildup
  • swollen legs
  • spider veins
  • weight loss
  • poor appetite
  • fatigue
  • hepatic encephalopathy symptoms such as difficulty thinking or concentrating, and confused thought

Hepatitis C is a viral infection which can cause serious liver damage. It’s often asymptomatic.

Screening for hepatitis can tell you whether you currently have the infection. It can also tell you whether you’ve ever had it and have HCV antibodies in your blood.

Universal screening is recommended for everyone over 18 and for pregnant people. Certain at-risk groups may also require screenings more often than the general population.

If you have hepatitis C, there are medical treatments which can clear the virus from your system.

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