Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes hepatitis that affects millions of people each year. The infection can be acute or chronic. The most common symptoms are fatigue, loss of appetite, and difficulty concentrating.
Some people who get hepatitis C have no symptoms at all. But other infections create serious, life-threatening complications, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Doctors test for hepatitis C with a reactive blood test called an HCV antibody test (also called an anti-hepatitis C 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 indicate that you have had a hepatitis C infection at some time in the past and the virus is no longer detectable or contagious. If you currently have hepatitis C, an HCV RNA test can confirm active infection.
We will detail how the HCV antibody test works and how to interpret the results.
The HCV antibody test requires a small blood sample. This sample is usually taken by a laboratory technician who draws a vial of blood from a vein in your arm. The actual blood draw usually takes less than a minute.
Your blood sample is then analyzed to see if hepatitis C antibodies are present in your blood. Antibodies are Y-shaped proteins that your body makes to fight pathogens.
Antibodies are specific to the virus or infection that is created to target them, so if you’ve ever had hepatitis C, your body will have produced antibodies to fight it. If you have never had a hepatitis C infection, these antibodies will not be present in your blood.
Test results can take anywhere from a few days to a week or two. Rapid hepatitis C tests are also available if you need results in an hour or less.
If your HCV antibody test shows up as “reactive,” then one of two things is true:
- You have an active case of hepatitis C
- I had hepatitis C at some point in the past
If you have hepatitis C, your body will be able to produce hepatitis C antibodies for the rest of your life. This is why a reactive result does not always mean you have an active infection.
If the hepatitis C antibody test comes in as “non-reactive,” then two things are true:
- You do not currently have hepatitis C
- You have never had an active hepatitis C infection
False negatives from a reactive hepatitis C virus test are rare, but they do. False negatives are more likely to appear if you are immunocompromised (for example, if you have HIV). If you are concerned that the test result is incorrect, see your doctor.
The result of the HCV antibody test will determine if there are additional steps you need to take.
If your test result is “reactive,” your doctor will need to determine whether you have an active hepatitis C infection, or whether the infection has occurred in the past. Your doctor may order an HCV RNA PCR test to find out how much virus is currently in your bloodstream.
Hepatitis C treatment
Rest, proper nutrition, and drinking plenty of fluids are common methods of treating hepatitis C. Antiviral medications may be prescribed. Antiviral drugs stop the virus from multiplying. If your doctor determines that you have chronic hepatitis C, it may also be necessary to take antiviral medications.
Learn more about the medications used to treat hepatitis C.
The goal of hepatitis C treatment is to treat it. This means preventing the infection from progressing to the stage where complications can develop, and eliminating the virus from your body. If you are pregnant, the main goal of hepatitis C treatment will be to prevent your baby from being born with the infection.
It’s rare, but possible, to have an active hepatitis C infection a second time.
It’s important to take precautions to prevent hepatitis C infection, especially if you belong to one of these risk groups. Effectively managing HIV, seeking treatment for any substance use disorders, or making sure of it
Preventive strategies also include avoiding contact with a person with known or suspected hepatitis C until they have been treated.
There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. However, safe and effective vaccines are available
The hepatitis C antibody test can have a reactive or non-reactive result. If your test result comes back ‘reactive’, this means that you have an active hepatitis C infection, or you have previously had hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C can cause serious, potentially life-threatening complications if not treated. It is important to seek testing if you think you have been exposed, or if you are experiencing worrisome symptoms. Hepatitis C is curable.
It’s important not to just assume that your hepatitis C infection was in the past, even if you don’t have symptoms at the moment. Your doctor will refer you for further tests if you have a reactive result.