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decision pointShould I be tested for hepatitis B and C?

The decision to be tested for hepatitis B and hepatitis C is not always simple. The tests are easy, but the test results could affect your life in ways you did not expect. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of testing. Consider the following when making your decision:

  • Hepatitis often causes no symptoms, so many people don't know they have it until they get tested.
  • If you get tested and are found to have hepatitis, you could face a hard decision about treatment. Treatment for hepatitis C may have serious side effects for the 6 to 12 months or longer that it takes. And it doesn't always work. It also costs a lot if you don't have insurance or if your insurance does not cover all of the costs.
  • People with hepatitis B or C may not need treatment if the disease hasn't caused any liver problems. But either type of hepatitis can cause serious liver problems, such as cirrhosis, liver cancer, or liver failure. And for some people, treatment may help prevent liver problems.
  • Some people get hepatitis B or C even though they never used illegal drugs or never had more than one sex partner.
  • If you have had shots to keep from getting hepatitis B, you could still get hepatitis C.
  • If you know you have hepatitis, you can take steps to keep from spreading it to others.
  • Having to tell friends and family that you have hepatitis could affect your relationships.
  • If you test positive, you could have trouble getting health insurance.

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis causes an inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis B and C are spread through infected blood and body fluids. This happens most often during sexual contact (hepatitis B) and when people share needles to inject drugs (hepatitis B and C). It can also happen when an infected person shares items such as razors or toothbrushes.

Sometimes a baby is infected at birth because the mother has hepatitis.

Other causes that are less common include:

  • Getting a tattoo or body piercing with a needle that was not sterile.
  • Getting an accidental needle stick from a dirty needle.
  • Having received a blood transfusion before 1992 (hepatitis C).

But many people get hepatitis without knowing where the virus came from. And many people have hepatitis for years without knowing it, because they have no symptoms.

Either type of hepatitis can cause serious liver problems, such as cirrhosis, liver cancer, or liver failure. But some people never have serious problems.

Most adults who get hepatitis B have it for a short time and then get better on their own.

Most people who get hepatitis C eventually have a long-term infection that may never go away, even with treatment.

What is the test for hepatitis?

A small amount of blood is drawn from your arm. The blood is sent to a lab for testing. The test looks for hepatitis antibodies. Having these antibodies means that you have been exposed to hepatitis, but it does not mean that you now have an active hepatitis infection.

If the first test shows that you have been exposed to hepatitis, your blood may then be tested again to look for the genetic material of the virus and identify its type. The second test shows whether you actually have a hepatitis infection. For the second test, the lab may use some of the blood that was already drawn, or you may need to have more blood drawn.

What are the benefits of getting tested for hepatitis B and C?

  • Getting tested can lead to early treatment, which may help prevent a long-term infection.
  • If you test positive, you may be able to help others by making sure people who may have given you the disease get tested. People you may have infected also could be tested.
  • If your test for hepatitis B is negative, you can get a vaccine to keep you from ever getting that disease. A vaccine is a shot that protects your body from a specific disease. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

What are the risks of getting tested for hepatitis B?

An acute or new hepatitis B infection in adults usually does not need to be treated and goes away on its own. But in some people it leads to long-term disease and serious liver problems. If you find out you have long-term (chronic) hepatitis B, you may face a decision about whether to go through treatment. Some of the medicines used to treat hepatitis B have few or no side effects. But others can cause serious side effects, such as constant tiredness, headaches, fever, nausea, thyroid problems, or depression.

What are the risks of getting tested for hepatitis C?

If you find out you have hepatitis C, you may face a tough decision about treatment. The medicines can cause serious side effects, such as constant tiredness, headaches, fever, nausea, depression, thyroid problems, and many more. Some people who start treatment stop, because the medicine makes them too ill to finish. And the treatment does not always work.

If you need more information, see the topics Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C.

Your choices are:

  • Have a blood test that will tell you whether you have hepatitis B and/or hepatitis C.
  • Do not have the blood test.

The decision whether to be tested for hepatitis takes into account your personal feelings and the medical facts.

Deciding about hepatitis testing

Reasons to be tested for hepatitis

Reasons not to be tested for hepatitis

  • You have shared needles or other equipment to inject drugs.
  • You have had unprotected sex with someone who is infected with hepatitis or whose sexual history is unknown to you.
  • Testing can detect hepatitis C early, leading to a better chance of successful treatment.
  • You are willing to go through treatment if you test positive.
  • You want to know whether you have hepatitis so that you can take steps to make sure you don't infect others.
  • If you test positive, you can choose to have regular checkups for now and put the treatment decision off for a while.
  • A previous test has shown that you have an infection in your liver.
  • You or your parents are from a part of the world where hepatitis B is common. Examples include Asia and Africa.
  • Your doctor has recommended that you be tested for hepatitis.

Are there other reasons you might want to be tested for hepatitis?

  • You have no risk factors for hepatitis.
  • Not everyone who has hepatitis needs treatment.
  • You would not go through hepatitis treatment if you tested positive.
  • You are afraid of discrimination-in the workplace, at school, or with your insurance-or of being treated differently.
  • Other tests have shown that your liver is working normally.
  • You don't have health insurance that will cover the high cost of treatment.

Are there other reasons you might not want to be tested for hepatitis?

These personal stories may help you make your decision.

Use this worksheet to help you make your decision. After completing it, you should have a better idea of how you feel about being tested for hepatitis. Discuss the worksheet with your doctor.

Circle the answer that best applies to you.

I have shared needles to inject drugs.

Yes No NA*

I have had more than one sex partner.

Yes No NA

I have had unprotected sex with someone whose sexual history I know nothing about.

Yes No NA

I know treatment can be hard, but I am willing to go through it if I have hepatitis.

Yes No Unsure

If I find out that I have hepatitis, I am willing to put myself through the side effects to get treatment.

Yes No Unsure

It's better for me not to even find out if I have hepatitis, because the treatment decision is too much for me to face right now.

Yes No Unsure

I am afraid of the treatment, but I'm willing to take the test and hold off on the treatment decision.

Yes No Unsure

My doctor wants me to be tested.

Yes No Unsure

If I have hepatitis, I want to know so that I can protect my friends and family from it.

Yes No Unsure

I am worried about other people or my insurance company finding out that I tested positive.

Yes No Unsure

I am from a country where Hepatitis B is common.

Yes No Unsure

*NA=Not applicable

Use the following space to list any other important concerns you have about this decision.

 

 

 

 

 

What is your overall impression?

Your answers in the above worksheet are meant to give you a general idea of where you stand on this decision. You may have one overriding reason to be tested or not be tested for hepatitis.

Check the box below that represents your overall impression about your decision.

Leaning toward being tested for hepatitis

 

Leaning toward NOT being tested for hepatitis

         
  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C

Organizations

American Liver Foundation (ALF)
75 Maiden Lane
Suite 603
New York, NY  10038
Phone: 1-800-GO-LIVER (1-800-465-4837)
Fax: (212) 483-8179
Web Address: www.liverfoundation.org
 

The American Liver Foundation (ALF) funds research and informs the public about liver disease. A nationwide network of chapters and support groups exists to help people with liver disease and their families. ALF also sponsors a national organ donor program to increase public awareness of the continuing need for organs.


Division of Viral Hepatitis, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)
Web Address: www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/hepatitis/index.htm
 

The Division of Viral Hepatitis provides information about viral hepatitis online and by telephone 24 hours a day. Pamphlets also are available. Information is available in English and in Spanish.


Hepatitis B Foundation
700 East Butler Avenue
Doylestown, PA  18901-2697
Phone: (215) 489-4900
Fax: (215) 489-4920
E-mail: info@hepb.org
Web Address: www.hepb.org
 

The Hepatitis B Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides information and patient support programs to the public. It also does research to find a cure for hepatitis B.


  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C

Other Works Consulted

  • Thomas DL, et al. (2005). Hepatitis C. In GL Mandell et al., eds., Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 6th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1950–1981. Philadelphia: Elsevier.

Author Cynthia Tank
Editor Katy E. Magee, MA
Associate Editor Michele Cronen
Primary Medical Reviewer Martin Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer W. Thomas London, MD - Hepatology
Last Updated July 13, 2009

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: July 13, 2009
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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