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There are so many screenings to get during regular visits to a healthcare professional, but you may forget to add hepatitis C (hep C) testing to the list.
And now you may be wondering, “Is testing for hep C even necessary?”
First things first: What is hep C?
It’s a viral infection that causes liver inflammation and can cause serious liver damage over time. Hep C is more common than you might think — it’s the most commonly reported bloodborne infection in the United States.
Hep C develops from the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is transmitted through exposure to the blood of someone who has HCV.
The most common way people contract hep C in the United States is through shared injection needles. But it can also be transmitted through sex without a condom or other barrier, reused tattooing equipment, or sharing of items like razors or toothbrushes that could have blood on them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all adults get screened for hep C at least once in their lives. So, if you’re 18 or older, the answer is yes.
While there are vaccines for hepatitis A and B, there is none for hep C. If you assumed you were in the clear because of a vaccine you got when you were younger, know that no hep C vaccine was on the list.
More than half of the people who contract hep C develop a chronic infection. If you test positive, it’s really important to get tested and talk with a healthcare professional about treatment options.
If you have certain risk factors, testing more often is recommended.
- You’re pregnant.
- You’re HIV-positive.
- You’ve shared needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs in your lifetime.
- You were born to a birthing parent with HCV.
- You have persistently abnormal alanine transaminase (ALT) levels, have ever received maintenance hemodialysis, or have certain other medical conditions (ask your doctor!).
- You’ve had a blood transfusion or organ transplant (especially if it was before July 1992) or been notified that your donor was HCV-positive.
- You were exposed to HCV-positive blood at your healthcare, emergency medical, or public safety job.
Continue to get routine, annual testing if you are at an increased risk of being exposed to HCV.
Not sure what’s best for you? Definitely discuss with a healthcare professional to see what they recommend.
Ask them if any of your medical conditions mean that you should get frequent testing for hep C. If you use injection drugs, ask how often they recommend testing.
Finding out whether you have hep C starts with getting tested for HCV. This involves a blood test called an HCV antibody test.
You can ask to be tested at your primary care doctor’s office or a public health clinic, or you can test yourself using a home testing kit.
To find a clinic with HCV testing near you, visit the CDC’s GetTested website and enter your zip code. This tool will help you find testing or free testing in nearby locations.
At-home test kits usually cost $50 to $100 for one test, which comes with all the materials and instructions you need. You’ll collect a small amount of blood and send it off to a lab for testing.
Test results may seem intimidating, especially if they can be a little more complicated than just “positive” or “negative.” With HCV testing, the antibody test determines whether you have ever contracted HCV.
Breaking down test results:
- A non-reactive HCV antibody test result means you do not currently have HCV.
- A reactive HCV antibody test result means you currently have HCV or had it at some point, and the antibodies are in your blood.
So, if you don’t have any HCV antibodies, you are negative for HCV.
If you do have HCV antibodies, that means you’ve either had it before or currently have it. If you’ve had it once, you’ll always have antibodies for it, whether your treatment has cleared it or not.
A reactive HCV antibody test result means you’ll need a nucleic acid test to find the HCV RNA. This test will tell you whether you have a current hep C infection.
If the result is negative, it means that your body has cleared the virus or that your HCV antibody test was a false positive.
If the result is positive, you currently have the virus and should speak with a healthcare professional to find out the proper treatment course for you.
Hep C often has no symptoms but can damage your liver without you knowing it. Getting tested can give you the knowledge you need to take care of your body going forward.
If you’re 18 or older, you can schedule an HCV test through your primary care doctor or a local health clinic, or you can buy an at-home test. Talk with a healthcare professional and have routine testing done if you have risk factors for developing hep C.