There are two hepatitis C tests: an antibody test and a PCR test.
The CDC recommends that all adults receive at least one hepatitis C test in their lifetime. Some people may need more frequent testing. The process may involve multiple tests, and the test results give you different types of information.
What is the hepatitis C antibody test?
The first test in the series is an antibody test. Antibodies are chemicals that the immune system produces when you have an infection. They often linger in your bloodstream even after the infection passes. As a result, they can tell you if you have ever had a hepatitis C infection.
What does a negative hepatitis C antibody test result mean?
A negative hepatitis C antibody test usually means you have never had the infection. If you get a negative antibody test, you generally don’t need to take the second test.
One exception is if you know you have very recently been exposed to hepatitis C. It takes a while for antibodies to form. If the infection is new, you may have hepatitis C but not have antibodies yet. In this case, your doctor may skip the antibody test and perform a PCR test instead.
What does a positive hepatitis C antibody test result mean?
A positive hepatitis C antibody test means you have had hepatitis C — either now or in the past. It cannot tell you when you had the infection, and it cannot tell you for sure if you have it currently.
If you receive a positive result, you will then need to take a second test: the PCR test.
What is a hepatitis C PCR test?
The hepatitis C PCR test is also called the nucleic acid tests. It helps test if you currently have an active hepatitis C infection. It does this by looking for evidence of the virus itself (as opposed to just the antibodies).
What does a negative hepatitis C PCR test result mean?
If you receive a negative PCR test (after a positive antibody test), this means you had hepatitis C in the past, but you don’t have it currently. This may be because you received treatment. In some cases, it may mean the body was able to fight off the infection on its own (but this is less common).
What does a positive hepatitis C PCR test result mean?
If you receive a positive PCR test, this means you currently have hepatitis C in your bloodstream.
At this point, your care team may then do further testing to see if you have any liver damage. They would also talk to you about starting medications for hepatitis C (direct-acting antivirals).
What’s my outlook if I test positive for hepatitis C?
It can be scary to get a positive test result for hepatitis C, but early detection can make a big difference. When caught earlier, hepatitis C generally has a good prognosis. Today’s hepatitis C medications are highly effective, and most people who take them are cured in 3 months or fewer.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Recommended testing sequence for identifying current hepatitis C (HCV) infection.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Viral hepatitis: testing recommendations.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Viral hepatitis: Hepatitis C testing: What to expect when getting tested.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). Hepatitis C basic information.