Diagnosing Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C (HCV) is a viral infection which attacks the liver and causes inflammation. According to the Mayo Clinic, HCV is one of a number of different hepatitis viruses and is considered to be one of the most serious. HCV generally shows no symptoms, and patients are unaware that they have the virus until damage to the liver is detected during another medical test. Diagnosis of HCV is often driven through screening, followed by certain diagnostic tests.

Symptoms

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) estimates that 4 million people in the United States are infected with HCV. Few of those people, however, will show symptoms, and most will be unaware that they have the disease. Symptoms of acute HCV that do manifest will normally appear within 12 weeks of infection and include dark urine, fatigue, jaundice, abdominal pain and nausea.

Diagnostic tests

HCV can be diagnosed using blood tests.

  • Anti-HCV test. This test determines whether you have ever been exposed to the HCV virus by looking for antibodies. These are proteins produced by the immune system to fight invading viruses when they enter the blood stream. A positive test indicates that you were infected at some point but does not necessarily mean that you are currently infected. A second test is required to establish this.
  • HCV viral load test. This test identifies the number of viral particles in the blood. The test may be used before and during treatment to determine the body's response to treatment.

Following a positive blood test result, NIAID advises that your doctor may subsequently recommend a liver biopsy to ascertain whether you have contracted chronic liver disease as a result of HCV. By the time your doctor diagnoses serious liver disease, the damage may be considerable, and it is possible that it may be irreversible. As such, NIAID recommends that people at high risk of infection should be routinely tested or screened so that the disease can be detected and treated as early as possible.

Screening

A number of different groups are at high risk from HCV infection. People in these groups should be tested for HCV on an ongoing basis, as required. They include:

  • People who had blood transfusions before blood screening was introduced.
  • People receiving dialysis.
  • People who may have had intimate contact with somebody infected with HCV.
  • Health-care workers who may have been exposed to somebody infected with HCV.
  • People who are HIV-positive.
  • Current or former injection-drug users.

Prevention options

As well as being screened for HCV on a regular basis, you can reduce the risk of infection in certain circumstances. Stopping the use of illegal injection drugs, for example, reduces the risk of contracting the infection through a contaminated needle. The Mayo Clinic also recommends caution when having a tattoo or body piercing and suggests that you should make sure that the shop uses sterile needles and equipment. Using a condom during sex can also reduce the risk of the disease being transmitted.

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