Millions of people are affected by the disease of hepatitis C every year. Acute or chronic infections can be caused by the same thing. Difficult concentrating, fatigue, and loss of appetite are some of the symptoms.

Some people who get hepatitis C never develop any symptoms at all. But other infections create severe, life-threatening complications, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Doctors test for hepatitis C with a reactive blood test called the HCV antibody test (also called an anti-HCV test). This blood test can determine if your body has created an immune response against the virus.

A positive HCV antibody test can indicate an active infection. A positive result can also suggest you have had a hepatitis C infection at some point in the past and the virus is no longer detectable or contagious. If you currently have hepatitis C, a HCV RNA test can confirm active infection.

We will explain how the test works and how it is interpreted.

Key statistics

2019 CDC statistics indicate there were around 57,000 hepatitis C infections in the United States that year. Hepatitis remains a major global health concern. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 58 million people worldwide are living with hepatitis C.

The test requires a small sample. A lab technician will draw a blood sample from your arm. The blood draw takes less than a minute.

Your blood sample is then analyzed to see if antibodies for hepatitis C are present in your blood. Antibodies are Y-shaped proteins that your body creates to fight off pathogens.

“If you have ever had the disease, your body will produce antibodies to fight it. If you have never had a hep C infection, those antibodies won’t be present in your blood.”

The results can take a few days or a few weeks. If you need the results in an hour or less, rapid tests for hepatitis C are also available.

One of two things are true if your test comes back asreactive.

  • you have an active case of hepatitis C
    OR
  • You have had a disease in the past.

“Your body will be able to produce hepatitis C antibodies for the rest of your life if you have the disease. This is why a reactive result doesn’t mean you have an active infection.”

If your test comes back as nonreactive, it means two things.

  • you don’t currently have hepatitis C
    AND
  • You have never had an active case of the disease.

Hepatitis C is primarily transmitted through blood contact. If you tested negative previously, but may have recently had close contact with another person with a confirmed hepatitis C infection, you should consider getting re-tested.

False negatives from an HCV-reactive test are rare, but they do happen. False negatives are more likely if you are immunocompromised (for example, if you are living with HIV). If you are concerned that your test result is incorrect, consult your doctor.

If there are additional steps that you need to take, the result of your HCV test will tell you.

If your test had a “reactive” result, your doctor will need to determine if you have an active hepatitis C infection, or if your infection took place in the past. Your doctor may order an HCV RNA PCR test to detect how much of the virus is currently in your bloodstream.

Hepatitis C treatment

Rest, proper nutrition, and drinking lots of fluids are common approaches to treating acute hepatitis C. Antiviral medication may be prescribed. Antivirals work to stop a virus from multiplying. If your doctor determines that you have chronic hepatitis C, antiviral medication may also be necessary.

Learn more about medications used to treat hepatitis C.

The aim of hepatitis C treatment is to cure it. This means keeping the infection from progressing to the stage where complications can develop, and eliminating the virus from your body. If you are pregnant, a central goal of hepatitis C treatment will also be to prevent your baby from being born with the infection.

It is possible to get an active hepatitis C infection a second time.

Risk factors for contracting hepatitis C twice include:

It’s important to take precautions to prevent a hepatitis C infection, especially if you are in one of these at-risk groups. Effectively managing your HIV, seeking treatment for any substance use disorders, or making sure you use clean needles whenever possible can lower your chances of acute infection.

If you have a known or suspected case of the disease, avoid contact with someone until they are treated.

There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. However there are safe and effective vaccines available for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

If you or a loved one is living with a substance use disorder, you’re not alone. Help is out there. Consider exploring SAMSHA’s resources for treatment facilities and support groups.

A test for the disease can have a negative result. If your test result comes back with areactive, it means that you have an active hepatitis C infection or have previously had it.

Hepatitis C can cause serious, even life-threatening complications if untreated. It’s important to seek testing if you believe you’ve had an exposure, or if you are experiencing troubling symptoms. Hepatitis C is curable.

It is important to not assume that you have no symptoms of a past hepatitis C infections. If you have a reactive result, your doctor will refer you for further testing.