What is The HCV Test and How Do You Prepare For It?
The Hepatitis C virus (HCV) causes inflammation of the liver that can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver failure, or liver cancer over several years. Hepatitis C infection spreads through contaminated blood.
HCV commonly causes silent infection, and most people do not have symptoms for months or even years after contracting the virus. It is only when the liver is damaged to a certain extent that the patient starts exhibiting symptoms. Early diagnosis is the key, and the most helpful tool for early diagnosis and successful treatment of HCV is a blood test called the HCV test.
What is an HCV Test?
The HCV test, also known as the Anti-HCV test, detects the presence of HCV antibodies in your body. Antibodies are proteins your immune system produces against an antigen (foreign body). Each antibody is unique and is produced only against one particular antigen. Thus, if you have a hepatitis C antibody in your blood, it indicates that you have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus at some point. This is the principle behind the HCV test.
You will have HCV antibodies in your body even if the virus has been cleared out of the body by your immune system or through treatment.
Who Should Have HCV Testing?
According to the guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all adults, people with known risk factors for hepatitis C, and pregnant women should get themselves tested for HCV. You must get an HCV test if you meet any of the following criteria:
- Your birth year lies between 1945 and 1965.
- You have ever received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992.
- You are a kidney patient on dialysis.
- You are a healthcare worker—you could have accidentally gotten pricked by an infected needle.
- You inject drugs or have done so in the past.
- You are infected with HIV.
- Your mother had HCV while pregnant with you.
- You have been in prison.
- Your sexual partner has a history of hepatitis C.
- Your liver function tests have turned out to be abnormal.
- You have gotten a tattoo or piercing done.
How is the HCV Test Performed?
The HCV test is a blood test. To perform this test, a lab technician ties an elastic band around the upper arm, and you are asked to make a fist. This ensures greater blood flow into the veins. The skin around the vein on the arm is cleaned to prevent any infection, and the needle is inserted into the vein. Blood is then drawn using a syringe, and the blood sample collected is sent to the laboratory for the test.
It usually takes a few days to a week for the test results to come. The rapid anti-HCV test is also available in some labs. The results of this test take only 20–30 minutes.
Is There Any Special Preparation Required for the HCV Test?
No special preparation, such as fasting, is required before undergoing the HCV test. It is a simple blood test for which a blood sample is collected in the usual manner.
What Do the Results of the HCV Test Mean?
The result of your HCV test will either be reactive or nonreactive.
Nonreactive HCV test: A negative or nonreactive HCV test result means that you do not have HCV antibodies in your body and, thus, are not infected with the hepatitis C virus. However, you can sometimes get a false negative HCV test. This test checks for antibodies, and it may take several months for the HCV antibodies to appear in the blood after encountering the hep C virus. Hence, if you have taken the blood test too soon, you may get an erroneous result.
If you strongly feel that you had a risky encounter less than 6 months ago, you must have a repeat HCV test in a couple of months.
Reactive HCV test: A positive or reactive HCV test indicates that you have HCV antibodies in your body, which means that you were infected with the hep C virus at some point in life. It, however, does not necessarily mean that you have an active infection. As mentioned earlier, you will have HCV antibodies even if the virus is no longer present in the body.
About 1 in 5 people with reactive HCV test has a false positive result, which may happen if:
- You have encountered the HCV at some point, but the virus has now been cleared from your body, either naturally by your immune system or you are cured by the treatment you received.
- Newborn babies with HCV-positive mothers may have acquired the antibodies from their mothers but do not suffer from active infection.
- The HCV test may sometimes erroneously give a positive result with antibodies to other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, etc.
What is The Next Step If You Have a Positive HCV Test?
If your HCV test result has turned out to be reactive or positive, you will need to have a different confirmatory test to find out if you still have the virus in your body. This test is called NAT (nucleic acid test), which detects the nucleic acid (RNA) of the hepatitis C virus, which can be detected way before the antibodies appear.
If the NAT test turns out negative, it indicates that you no longer have the hepatitis C virus in your body.
A positive NAT result means that the virus is still present in the body, and you need treatment to prevent the progression of the infection and liver damage.
The main hurdle in preventing the progression of hepatitis C infection in the body is that it causes no apparent symptoms until the liver has been damaged enough to affect its functioning. Book a simple blood test called an HCV test to help diagnose the infection in its early stages, which can be lifesaving.