Hepatitis C screening test
Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. Hepatitis C is often described as “acute,” meaning a new infection or “chronic,” meaning lifelong infection.
- Acute hepatitis C occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C can be a short-term illness, but for most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.
- Chronic hepatitis C can be a lifelong infection with the hepatitis C virus if left untreated. Left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can cause serious health problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and even death.
Who is at risk
Your risk of hepatitis C infection is increased if you:
- Are a healthcare worker who has been exposed to infected blood, which may happen if an infected needle pierces your skin
- Have ever injected or inhaled illicit drugs
- Have HIV
- Received a piercing or tattoo in an unclean environment using unsterile equipment
- Received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- Received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
- Received hemodialysis treatments for a long period of time
- Were born to a woman with a hepatitis C infection
- Were ever in prison
- Were born between 1945 and 1965, the age group with the highest incidence of hepatitis C infection
Long-term infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) is known as chronic hepatitis C. Chronic hepatitis C is usually a "silent" infection for many years, until the virus damages the liver enough to cause the signs and symptoms of liver disease. Among these signs and symptoms are:
- Bleeding easily
- Bruising easily
- Poor appetite
- Yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Dark-colored urine
- Itchy skin
- Fluid buildup in your abdomen (ascites)
- Swelling in your legs
- Weight loss
- Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
- Spider-like blood vessels on your skin (spider angiomas)
What you can do
Protect yourself from hepatitis C infection by taking the following precautions:
- Stop using illicit drugs, particularly if you inject them. If you use illicit drugs, seek help.
- Be cautious about body piercing and tattooing. If you choose to undergo piercing or tattooing, look for a reputable shop. Ask questions beforehand about how the equipment is cleaned. Make sure the employees use sterile needles. If employees won't answer your questions, look for another shop.
- Practice safer sex. Don't engage in unprotected sex with multiple partners or with any partner whose health status is uncertain. Sexual transmission between monogamous couples may occur, but the risk is low.
Preventive service at no cost
Adults at High Risk
The USPSTF recommends screening for hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection in persons at high risk for infection. The USPSTF also recommends offering 1-time screening for HCV infection to adults born between 1945 and 1965.
Why screening is important
Hepatitis C infection that continues over many years can cause significant complications, such as:
- Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). After 20 to 30 years of hepatitis C infection, cirrhosis may occur. Scarring in your liver makes it difficult for your liver to function.
- Liver cancer. A small number of people with hepatitis C infection may develop liver cancer.
- Liver failure. Advanced cirrhosis may cause your liver to stop functioning.
Many persons with chronic HCV infection are unaware of their condition, mainly because they have no symptoms, which can take decades to appear.
Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1965 are more likely to be diagnosed with HCV infection, possibly because they received blood transfusions before the introduction of screening in 1992 or have a history of other risk factors for exposure decades earlier.
Even if a person with hepatitis C has no symptoms, he or she can still spread the hepatitis C virus to others.
What the screening is
A blood test, called a hepatitis C antibody test, can tell if you have ever been infected with the hepatitis C virus. Antibodies are chemicals released into the bloodstream when someone gets infected. Another test, called a hepatitis C virus RNA test, can tell if you have a current infection with the hepatitis C virus. RNA is the virus’ genetic material.
People with acute hepatitis C virus infection should be followed by a doctor and only considered for treatment if their infection remains and becomes a chronic infection.
There are several medications available to treat chronic hepatitis C. The purpose of antiviral treatment regimens is to prevent long-term health complications of chronic HCV infection (such as cirrhosis, liver failure, and hepatocellular carcinoma).
For people with cirrhosis, there is a continued risk of liver cancer even after hepatitis C virus infection is cured. People with chronic hepatitis C, and people with cirrhosis (even if they have been cured for hepatitis C) should be monitored regularly by a doctor and be vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
People with chronic hepatitis C should avoid alcohol because it can cause additional liver damage. They also should check with their doctor before taking any prescription pills, herbs, supplements, or over-the-counter medications, as these can potentially damage the liver.