One Life-Saving Test: Hepatitis C Screening and Treatment

Hepatitis C is a global public health concern, affecting millions of patients. Most people with hepatitis C show no symptoms until late in the disease. Because treatment is relatively simple and highly effective, screening and early treatment can save your life. 

Many people who have hepatitis C live for years without feeling sick. But the virus can still damage your liver and cause liver cancer — even if you don’t feel sick. You could also spread the virus to others without knowing it. Read on to learn more about hepatitis C symptoms, screening, and diagnosis.

What’s hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which infects and damages the liver. It is mostly transmitted by blood and, in some cases, through sexual intercourse. In the United States, sharing drug needles with someone who has hepatitis C is the most common mode of transmission.

In people with chronic hepatitis C, the virus stays in the liver permanently and can cause fatigue, weight loss, or no symptoms at all. Over time, chronic hepatitis C can cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) or liver failure, which can require a liver transplant or result in liver cancer and even death. Approximately 6% of patients with hepatitis C die from complications of the disease.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

If you have hepatitis C, you will likely not have symptoms for decades after infection. When symptoms do occur, they are generally mild and can include abdominal pain, nausea, and jaundice–that’s when your skin and eyes turn yellow. Because it can be a silent disease for a long time, experts recommend that all adults aged 18 to 79 be screened for hepatitis C.

How do I know if I have hepatitis C?

A medical evaluation and a screening are the first steps to find out if you have hepatitis C. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening for hepatitis C at least once in a lifetime for all adults aged 18 to 79 years with no symptoms. Consult your health care provider about your screening options.

Most adults may only need a one-time hepatitis C screening. Others, such as those who inject drugs, may need more frequent screening. The USPSTF also suggests screening people younger than 18 years or older than 79 years if they have past or current history of intravenous (IV) drug use.

Why should I test for hepatitis C?

Based on the evidence, the USPSTF concludes that screening for hepatitis C infection in adults has substantial benefits, including early detection and treatment. Early treatment with antiviral medications is over 90% effective and can remove the virus from your blood and significantly reduce the chance of developing liver failure. 

Does hepatitis C screening carry any risks?

A blood test, called an HCV antibody test, is used to determine if someone has ever been infected with the hepatitis C virus. It is similar to other routine blood tests that check for kidney function, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels. 

How is hepatitis C treated?

Hepatitis C treatment in patients without cirrhosis or advanced liver fibrosis consists of a combination of antiviral tablets taken once or twice per day for 8 to 12 weeks. Side effects and potential complications from treatment are rare.