Because many people don't have symptoms, it's common for people to have hepatitis C for 15 years or longer before it is diagnosed. Many people don't find out that they have the virus until they are tested for some other reason, such as when donating blood. Experts recommend that all adults born from 1945 to 1965 should be tested for hepatitis C.4, 5 People in this age group are more likely to have hepatitis C and not know it.
It is important to be tested for hepatitis C if you:
- Have signs or symptoms of liver disease, such as abnormal liver tests.
- Received blood from a donor who was found to have hepatitis C.
- Have ever shared needles while using drugs, even if you only experimented many years ago.
- Are a health care worker who may have been exposed to hepatitis C through a needle stick or other contact with blood or body fluids.
- Have had your blood filtered by a machine (hemodialysis) because your kidneys cannot filter your blood.
- Received blood, blood products, or a solid organ from a donor before 1992. Since 1992, all donated blood and organs are screened for hepatitis C. So it is now rare to get the virus this way.
- Received blood-clotting factor concentrates (used to treat blood disorders such as hemophilia) before 1987. In 1987, screening of clotting factor concentrates for hepatitis C became a requirement.
Before you have tests, your doctor will probably talk to you about the pros and cons of testing for hepatitis C so that you understand what having the virus means.
First exam at the doctor's office
Your doctor will:
- Ask questions about your medical history.
- Do a physical exam.
- Check your liver enzymes to see if they are high. This may be the first sign that you have the virus.
Tests for the hepatitis C virus
If your doctor thinks that you may have hepatitis C, he or she may order:
- A hepatitis C virus test. This is a blood test that looks for antibodies against the hepatitis C virus. It shows whether you have been exposed to the virus. A rapid test is available that gives results in 20 minutes.
- A blood test that looks for the genetic material (RNA) of the hepatitis C virus. This test shows whether you are infected with the virus now.
- A blood test to find out the kind of hepatitis C virus (genotype) you have. Knowing your genotype will help you and your doctor decide if and how you should be treated.
Home testing for hepatitis C
Some people prefer to find out on their own whether they have been exposed to hepatitis C. In most drugstores you can buy a home test called the Home Access Hepatitis C Check kit. If test results show that you have been exposed to the virus, it is important to discuss these results with your doctor and to find out if you are infected with the virus now.
Tests for liver problems
To check how well your liver is working, you may have:
- Liver function tests. These are blood tests that can help your doctor find out if you have liver damage.
- A liver biopsy. The doctor puts a needle in the liver to find out whether the virus has caused scarring or damage to your liver.
- Imaging tests such as a CT scan, an MRI, or an ultrasound to make sure that you don't have liver cancer.