for Veterans and the Public
Getting Tested for Hepatitis C: Entire Lesson - Hepatitis C for Patients
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a disease that affects your liver. It is caused by a virus, called the hepatitis C virus, or HCV for short. Approximately 3 million people in the United States are thought to have hepatitis C. Veterans have higher rates of hepatitis C than the general population.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
The symptoms of hepatitis C infection are often very mild. Most people can carry the virus for years and not notice any symptoms. The most common symptoms are vague abdominal discomfort, fatigue, and joint pains. Even if you do not have any symptoms, hepatitis C can be a serious illness. Over time, it can cause other health problems, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Finally, because it stays in your body, you can give hepatitis C to someone else.
What happens to people with hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C, or HCV, replicates in the liver. During this process, parts of the virus trigger your immune system into action. In the process of trying to rid your body of the HCV infection, the immune system actually kills infected liver cells. Over a slow process of many years, the interaction between the immune system and your liver can result in scarring of the liver and loss of liver function.
Most people who are infected with hepatitis C develop a chronic infection with the virus. But for some people, their body gets rid of the virus on its own very early after they are first infected. More than half of people with hepatitis C will never have any health problems from it. The disease generally progresses slowly, over the course of 10 to 40 years.
Here is a snapshot of the long-term effects of hepatitis C
Out of 100 people who get hepatitis C:
- 15 will get rid of the virus without any treatment
- 85 will develop a chronic infection
Of those 85 who have a chronic infection:
- About 17 will develop liver cirrhosis in their lifetime
- About 2 will develop liver cancer
Should I get tested?
Currently, it is recommended that all adults age 18-79 be tested for hepatitis C. Talk to your VA provider about risk factors that may require more regular screening.
The hepatitis C test is available for all Veterans enrolled in VA health care. See the printable HCV testing handout for information about getting tested at a VA facility.
If you are at risk for HCV, you should consider getting tested. You have to get blood tests to find out if you have HCV because the symptoms of hepatitis C infection often are very mild. In fact, you may not have any symptoms at all.
If you are diagnosed with hepatitis C, new treatments for hepatitis C are able to cure most people in about 12 weeks.
What Tests Do I Need?
There are usually only two blood tests that need to be done to determine if you have chronic hepatitis C.
The first test is called an "antibody" test. This tests looks to see if your body has developed antibodies to HCV (Antibodies are particles your body makes to fight off infections). This test is sometimes called an anti-HCV test. A positive antibody result means that, at some point in your life, you were exposed to the hepatitis C virus, and you developed antibodies to fight off the virus. (Another name for this antibody test is EIA.) But just having a positive antibody test does not mean you have chronic hepatitis C infection.
If your hepatitis C antibody test is positive, then a second test will be done to see if you still have the hepatitis C virus in your body. This test is called a hepatitis C viral load test (or RNA test). If this test is positive, you have chronic hepatitis C and should talk to your provider about treatment.
You do not need a liver biopsy to determine if you have hepatitis C.
For more details about these tests, go to Understanding Lab Tests.
Where can I get tested?
Any Veteran enrolled in VA care can ask for a hepatitis C test. You may or may not need an appointment to get tested at your local VA medical center, as different sites have different practices. Your provider will give you basic information about the testing process and to answer any questions that you have about hepatitis C or the test itself.
For more information, call your local VA medical center. (Click here to locate a VA health care facility near you.)
Must I answer personal questions?
Your health care provider may want to discuss your sexual or substance use history with you. This can help better assess your risk for hepatitis C. Your provider also can give you some recommendations on how to reduce your risk for getting hepatitis C or for transmitting it to others.
If these questions make you feel uncomfortable, you can say that you'd rather not answer them.
Things to remember about getting tested for hepatitis C in VA:
- Testing is voluntary.
- If you don't want to have a test for hepatitis C, it will not keep you from receiving other medical care from VA.
- Your test results will go on your medical record.
- VA is not the military. You won't lose your VA benefits just because you engage in certain drug or sexual behaviors.
Is there counseling?
It's important to get counseling when you are tested for hepatitis C. As part of the procedure in the VA, a health care provider will talk with you and explain the testing process, answer your questions, and address your concerns. The provider also can offer advice about reducing your risk for hepatitis C.
After your results come in, your health care provider will tell you what the results were and answer your questions. If your test result is positive, the provider will refer you for a medical evaluation and treatment in a VA facility. If your result is negative, you will learn about ways to protect yourself against hepatitis C.
How long does it take to test positive?
If a person exposed to hepatitis C becomes infected, virus particles (called HCV RNA) can be detected within 1-2 weeks. Liver function tests also tend to rise during this timeframe. Hepatitis C antibodies appear after RNA is detectable and can take 3-12 weeks to appear.
Can test results be wrong?
Yes. But this is rare.
A "false-positive" test means your antibody test shows that you have been exposed to hepatitis C, when in fact you haven't been. For this reason, your provider will perform other tests to double- or triple-check your results.
A "false-negative" test means your results suggest that you have not been exposed to hepatitis C, when in fact you have been. One reason someone could have a false-negative result is that they have been infected with hepatitis C recently and haven't developed enough antibodies for the test to detect them. Or sometimes people with other conditions, such as HIV, will have hepatitis C but their antibody test is falsely negative.
What should I do if I test positive?
Treatments are able to cure most people of hepatitis C.
The most important things you can do right now are:
- Talk to your health care provider about the treatment options.
- Make sure you show up to your medical appointments.
- Follow your provider's instructions about lifestyle, diet and nutrition, and treatment.
- Learn as much as you can about hepatitis C and how to take care of yourself.
- Ask for help or support when you need it.
Being diagnosed with hepatitis C can be overwhelming, but remember that you are not alone. Your provider is there to help you, answer your questions, and refer you to sources of support if you need them (such as support groups or counselors).
For details on next steps, go to Just Diagnosed.
What should I do if I test negative?
It's a relief to test negative for hepatitis C. You should remember, though, that just because you tested negative, you are not immune from hepatitis C.
Continue to protect yourself from becoming infected. Here are some ways to reduce your risk of getting hepatitis C:
- Don't inject drugs. If you do, talk with your provider about trying to stop. If you can't stop, don't ever share your needles or works with anyone else.
- Always practice safe sex. Use a latex barrier, such as a condom (or rubber) every time you have sex. Using condoms also reduces your chances of getting some sexually transmitted diseases.
- Do not use anyone else's razor, toothbrush, or other personal care items.
Getting Tested: Resources
Definitions of terms commonly used with viral hepatitis and related conditions.
- Hepatitis Risk Assessment
5-minute assessment developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that gives you a personalized report of your hepatitis risk.
- American Liver Foundation
A national nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of hepatitis and other liver diseases through research, education, and advocacy. Website features a database directory of hepatitis clinical trials, facts sheets, and links to additional resources.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Viral Hepatitis
Information on all types of viral hepatitis from the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases. Site features related CDC guidelines and recommendations as well as training materials, slide sets, fact sheets, and key CDC hepatitis documents.
- NATAP: Hepatitis
Recogizing that coinfection with viral hepatitis among people with HIV is a growing problem, the National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project (NATAP) has developed an extensive amount of information on hepatitis, both in the context of HIV coinfection and as a separate illness. NATAP provides coverage of key conferences, maintains a selection of hepatitis articles, and features an ask-the-expert forum on hepatitis C.