There are several viruses that can cause hepatitis. Unlike hepatitis A, Hepatitis C is a much serious infection with no cure. While in some patients the virus clears within six months, there are others who can develop severe liver damage and/or liver cancer. Unlike Hepatitis B, there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C.
Once the Hepatitis C virus is acquired, the symptoms do not appear immediately. It takes time for the body to respond and to generate enough antibodies to be detected in blood. This latent period is often referred to as the window period. For Hepatitis C, this window period ranges from 6-9 weeks from the time a person got infected. If the person is tested during the window period, the test for Hepatitis C will usually turn up as negative.
The question is: when should a person suspected of having Hepatitis C be tested?
When Hepatitis C is acquired, the virus enters the liver where it starts an inflammatory process. It takes time for the body’s immune system to respond. Initially, the antibody response is small and not detectable by presently available tests. After 6-9 weeks of onset of infection, the antibody response is greater and these proteins can be measured in blood.
People who think they have acquired Hepatitis C often need to be tested twice. If the initial test is negative, it could be that the antibody response has not yet developed and hence, a second test must be done after 8-9 weeks.
What one should understand is that even if the antibody has not developed, the person who has acquired Hepatitis C is still contagious and can transmit the infection to others. Hepatitis C is acquired by:
- blood transfusion
- IV drug abuse
- Injuries from needle sticks
- sharing personal care products like toothbrushes and razors with others
- having a tattoo done at a parlor which reuses its needles or has little aseptic techniques
- sexual contact.
Hepatitis C is not transferred by kissing, touching someone, eating contaminated food or water or through the toilet seat.
In general, there are some people who are at a higher risk for Hepatitis C than others. These include:
- People born between 1945 and 1965 because there were no tests to check for Hepatitis C
- IV drug users
- People who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992.
- Dialysis patients
- Healthcare professionals
- Homosexual men who have unprotected anal sex
If you think you have acquired Hepatitis C, the first thing to you must do is to speak to a healthcare professional about testing. There are other sensitive tests that can actually measure the Hepatitis C RNA in blood. These tests are more sensitive and can detect the virus much earlier than the antibody tests. Speak to a healthcare provider to find out more information about additional tests that may help earlier detection and treatment of Hepatitis C.