This section covers where you can get tested for hepatitis C and what to expect from the different types of tests.
Where to get tested
If you think you have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus and would like to take a test, there are lots of options available.
You can ask for a hepatitis C test from:
- a GP or family doctor
- sexual health or GUM clinics
- drug dependency units and community drug teams
- most needle exchange services
- antenatal clinics
- some pharmacies.
Before you visit, contact the service or check their website to find out if you need to make an appointment.
If you live in England, you are now able to order a free finger-prick test online from the NHS.
After you have sent your blood sample, you will be contacted with your test result within 2 weeks. If you test positive, an NHS health care professional will call you to discuss the result.
order your hepatitis c test online
If you live in England, order a free finger-prick test from the NHS today
Types of hepatitis C test
To find out if you have hepatitis C, you will usually have a blood test. Occasionally, a saliva test is used.
If you are receiving a blood test from your GP, blood will be taken from your vein using a thin needle and syringe. It can sometimes hurt a little bit when the needle goes in, but it is usually over very quickly.
Some services use a finger prick test. This is when a small needle is used to take blood from your fingertip. Sometimes these tests are referred to as dried blood spot tests.
The person giving you the test will gently prick your finger, then collect a small drop of blood on a piece of card or blood sample bottle.
Two tests are performed on a blood sample to find out if you have hepatitis C:
- Antibody test – to find out if you have ever been exposed to the hepatitis C virus
- PCR test – to find out if the virus is still active and needs treating
The tests can often be done from one sample of blood. However, some services will perform the antibody test first and then call you back for a second blood sample to perform another test if you are positive for the antibodies.
Find out more about what healthcare professionals are looking for when using the different types of tests:
A hepatitis C antibody test tells you whether you have ever had the hepatitis C virus. It works by testing for the presence of hepatitis C antibodies generated by your immune system.
Up to 1 in 5 people clear the virus from their bodies naturally (spontaneous clearance). If you have cleared the virus either naturally or with treatment, you will always test positive for hepatitis C antibodies.
The only way to know if you are currently infected is with a PCR test.
If you receive a negative hepatitis C antibody test but have been experiencing symptoms or know you have been recently exposed to hepatitis C, then you should have another test in six months. This is because it can take several months for the body to start producing antibodies.
The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test tells you whether you are currently infected with hepatitis C by detecting the presence of the genetic material of the virus in the blood. This genetic material is called RNA. Sometimes the PCR test is referred to as an RNA test.
Test results are generally reported as either ‘undetectable’ (negative result) or ‘detectable’ (positive result). Positive results are often given in terms of the amount of virus found in a unit of blood. This is called the viral load.
During treatment, a falling viral load indicates that the medicines are working.
How long does it take to get my test results?
In some places, blood tests are taken to the laboratory to be examined, and the results can take up to 2 weeks. Some antibody test results can be back within 15 minutes.
Other tests you might need
If you have tested positive for hepatitis C, you will be referred to a specialist for more tests to check the health of your liver.
The tests may include:
- Other blood tests
- Liver function tests – blood tests to measure certain enzymes and proteins in your blood to find out if your liver is damaged or inflamed
- A FibroScan – to test how stiff your liver is; stiffness suggests there may be some scarring (cirrhosis)
If your liver is damaged, you may also need to be tested for liver cancer.
Find out more about what healthcare professionals are looking for using the different types of tests:
You may need other blood tests including a full blood count, clotting tests and kidney tests. These help assess how well your liver is working and which treatment is best suited to you.
You may also be offered testing for hepatitis B and HIV if you are at risk.
One way to find out if liver cells are damaged is by testing the level of the liver enzymes alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) in your blood.
When your liver is damaged, ALT and AST enzymes are released into the bloodstream.
In most cases of chronic hepatitis C infection, liver function test results tend to fluctuate. Over the space of just a few days, the results can vary from normal to noticeably raised.
A FibroScan is a non-invasive test using a sound wave to measure the elasticity of the liver. As damage to the liver increases, it becomes stiffer. The stiffer or less elastic the liver, the faster the sound wave travels.
The results from your FibroScan will help your healthcare team understand the condition of your liver and if there is any scarring (fibrosis) present. It is a simple, painless test that gives immediate results.
To have the scan, you lie on your back and a healthcare professional will place a probe on the skin over your liver area. You will feel a gentle flick each time a vibration wave is generated by the probe, but you will not feel any pain. The procedure takes around 10 minutes to complete.
If your FibroScan results show serious scarring (cirrhosis) of the liver, your doctor may decide to test for liver cancer.
Tests for liver cancer include more blood tests, scans and very occasionally liver biopsies.
You can find out more about these tests on the Liver Cancer UK website.