Hepatitis C is a serious liver disease that can go undetected for years. While some people's immune systems fight the infection and rid the body of the virus, most who become infected with hepatitis C develop chronic health problems, including liver damage and liver failure.
Who is at risk?
Hepatitis C is spread through the blood of those infected with the hepatitis C virus, such as by sharing needles. Individuals who received blood transfusions or organ transplants prior to 1992 are also at risk. Although rare, it can be spread through sexual contact, especially if there is a history of STDs, HIV, multiple partners or rough sex.
Testing for hepatitis C is recommended for anyone who:
- Has symptoms of liver disease
- Received blood prior to 1992 or from someone known to have hepatitis C
- Received an organ transplant prior to 1992
- Has shared needles while using drugs
- Has been exposed to the blood of someone with hepatitis C, including healthcare workers
- Has had many sex partners
- Has received hemodialysis
- Received blood clotting factors for diseases such as hemophilia prior to 1987
As noted above, hepatitis C can exist for many years without presenting any symptoms. If you were exposed to high-risk situations years ago and have never been screened for hepatitis C, talk to your doctor about whether you should be tested. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer, but treatments that rid your body of the virus are available. It is important to be screened for the virus if you fall into one of the high-risk categories.
Screening for hepatitis C begins with a blood test to check for antibodies to the virus. If the test comes back "reactive," it means that you, at some point, had the hepatitis C virus. It is possible that you were exposed to hepatitis C but that your immune system cleared the virus. Once you have hepatitis C, the antibodies remain in your system.
Blood tests also help to measure the quantity of the virus in your blood system and that helps determine if you are currently infected. The test also identifies the type of hepatitis C virus. There are currently six types of hepatitis C viruses, all with additional subtypes. Identifying the specific strain is important in prescribing the best treatment.
These tests are done through your doctor, although a home screening test can tell you if you have been exposed to hepatitis C. Your local pharmacy should have the Home Access Hepatitis C Check Kit. These test kits show only if you have been exposed at some point to hepatitis C; they do not indicate if the virus is active. If you use a home screening kit and the result is positive, you should contact your doctor.
Depending on the results of your blood test, your doctor might want to do additional testing to see if there has been damage to your liver. Some of the tests might include:
- Liver function testing
- Liver biopsy
- Imaging-CT scan, MRI or ultrasound
All of the above are done to measure damage to your liver. The results help your doctor devise the best treatment plan. Your doctor might also suggest that you be tested for HIV.