Hepatitis C Virus Antibodies Test
Hepatitis C (also known as hepatitis C or HCV) is part of a group of hepatitis viruses that attack the liver. It is spread primarily through contaminated needles, either from injecting drugs or needle sticks in healthcare settings. It can also be transmitted sexually, especially during anal sex or other types of sex that can involve blood.
Some groups are at higher risk for hepatitis C than others, including people who use drugs, people in prison, men who have sex with men, health workers, and people living with HIV. Chronic hepatitis C can be serious and, without proper treatment and care, can cause liver disease and liver cancer that lead to death. Treatment, when available, can cure hepatitis C in most cases.
How is hepatitis C contracted and prevented?
Hepatitis C is spread when infected blood enters another person’s body. It is very infectious, and the virus can live outside the body for up to several weeks.
Contaminated needles and infected blood
You can get hepatitis C from sharing contaminated needles, syringes, and other injection equipment while using recreational drugs. Banknotes and straws used for sniffing can also transmit the virus.
Exposure to unsterilized body piercing and tattoo equipment can also transmit hepatitis C. Occasionally, it can be contracted by sharing a towel, razor blades, or toothbrush if there is infected blood on them.
Hepatitis C infection is also spread in healthcare settings, by needle sticks, or by medical and dental equipment that has not been properly sterilized. In countries where blood products are not routinely tested, you can also get hepatitis C from a transfusion of blood and untested blood products.
You can prevent hepatitis C by:
- never share needles and syringes or other items that may be contaminated with infected blood (even old or dried blood can contain the virus)
- only having tattoos, body piercings, or acupuncture in a professional setting, where new, sterile needles are used
- following standard infection control precautions, if you are working in a healthcare setting.
Hepatitis C can be spread through sex without a condom or dental dam with someone who has the virus, even if they have no symptoms. Hepatitis C has been detected in semen and vaginal fluids, but infection through these routes is thought to be unlikely.
Sex that leads to blood exposure is the main form of sexual transmission of hepatitis C. These types of sexual activities include anal sex, fisting, when a woman is on her period, and rough sex that leads to tearing or cuts. Sharing uncovered or unwashed sex toys can also pass it on.
Because of this, sexual transmission of hepatitis C is more common among populations that engage in anal sex, such as men who have sex with men. Sexual transmission during vaginal sex is believed to be very rare. The risk of hepatitis C infection increases when you have another STI, especially one that causes sores. People living with HIV are also more likely to get hepatitis C.
How do I protect myself from getting hepatitis C during sex?
- Get tested for hepatitis C and know the status of your sexual partners.
- Use condoms, especially during anal sex, rough sex, or if you are menstruating. If you have sex with a new partner or if you have multiple partners, it is a good idea to use condoms consistently.
- Wear dental dams and latex gloves for rimming, fingers, and fists.
- Get regular STI tests.
If you are living with HIV, taking your HIV antiretroviral treatment keeps your immune system strong, making you less likely to get other infections, including hepatitis C.
From condoms, other types of contraceptives such as the contraceptive pill and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV do not offer protection against hepatitis C or other sexually transmitted infections.
If you have been diagnosed with hepatitis C, it is recommended that you avoid sexual intercourse until you have finished your treatment and have been told it is safe by a healthcare professional.
Mother to son
Hepatitis C can be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her child during pregnancy and delivery, although this is rare. The risk of transmitting hepatitis is slightly higher for mothers living with both HIV and hepatitis C (called coinfection).
Currently, antivirals used to treat hepatitis are not recommended for pregnant women because there is not enough information to know if the drugs are safe for your unborn baby.
If you have hepatitis C and are pregnant talk to your doctor. They can give you advice on how to protect yourself and your baby during pregnancy and delivery. If you plan to have a baby, your doctor may recommend that you treat hepatitis C before you get pregnant.
Breastfeeding with hepatitis C is considered safe. But if you have cracked or bleeding nipples, it is generally recommended to stop breastfeeding until they have healed.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C infection can go through two stages: acute and chronic. In the early or “acute” stage, most people have no symptoms. If they develop symptoms, they may include:
- flu-like symptoms, tiredness, high temperature, and aches and pains
- loss of appetite
- tummy (abdominal) pain
- jaundice, which means your skin and the whites of your eyes turn yellow
While for some people, the infection will clear up without treatment, in most cases, the acute infection will turn into a long-term “chronic” infection. Chronic infection may not manifest for several years until the liver shows signs of damage. These symptoms can include:
- mental confusion (often called “brain fog”) and depression – these are specific to hepatitis C
- feeling constantly tired
- nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain
- dark urine (pee)
- pale stools (poo)
- skin itch
- feel bloated
- joint and muscle pain
Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C can cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), which can cause the liver to stop working properly. A small number of people with cirrhosis develop liver cancer, and these complications can lead to death. Other than a liver transplant, there is no cure for cirrhosis. However, treatments can help alleviate some of the symptoms.
How is hepatitis C tested?
A simple blood test by a healthcare professional will show if you have the virus. You may also have an additional test to see if your liver is damaged. If you have hepatitis C, you should be tested for other STIs. It is important that you tell your recent sexual partner (s) so they can also be tested and treated.
Many people who have hepatitis C do not notice anything wrong, and by telling them that you can help stop the spread of the virus. It can also prevent you from getting the infection again.
How is hepatitis C treated?
People with the acute infection do not always need treatment because their immune system can clear hepatitis C on its own. If you test positive during the acute stage, your doctor may ask you to come back after a few months to retest and see if you need any treatment.
If people develop a chronic infection, they will need treatment to help clear the virus. Where available, treatment with drugs called direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) can cure hepatitis in most cases. They are usually taken for 8 to 12 weeks. Your doctor will also check your liver for any damage.
If you have had hepatitis C in the past, you are not immune to future infections, which means you can get it again. You can also get other types of hepatitis, and having hepatitis C along with another type is more serious.
If you have already had hepatitis C, it is advisable to get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B to protect your liver from further damage. Whether you have symptoms or not, don’t have sex until your healthcare professional says it’s okay.