Hepatitis Testing Explained: Key Lab Tests and How to Understand Them

Whether you’ve traveled outside the country for mission work or signed a consent form to get a tattoo, chances are you’ve heard about hepatitis before. Most of us have the general idea that there are different varieties and that some are worse than others. But which ones are the bad ones, and how do we tell if we have any of them?

The truth is that most adults will get exposed to some strain of hepatitis at some point in their lives. Knowing which strains are dangerous and when you should have hepatitis testing performed could save your life. Read on to learn more about hepatitis and the tests you can have run to screen for it.

What Is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is a disease that causes your liver to get inflamed. It is caused by viruses and comes in three primary forms: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. The three strains vary in how dangerous and long-lasting they are.

Your liver is the largest organ in your body and helps digest food and store energy. It also forms the center of your body’s detox system, meaning you never have to do another juice cleanse again. As long as it’s healthy, your liver can take care of removing any dangerous toxins from your body.

When you develop hepatitis, you may see several symptoms depending on the strain you have. Common symptoms include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and jaundice. There are vaccines you can get against certain strains of hepatitis, so be sure you’re up to date on those.

Hepatitis A 

Hepatitis A is a highly infectious viral infection and is the easiest of the strains to get. You can pick up Hepatitis A from food or water contaminated with the virus or from close contact with an infected person. There is a vaccine available to prevent this disease, and washing your hands is a great way to keep it from spreading.

Hepatitis A is the most minor of the strains, and some people who get it never develop symptoms. If you do get symptoms, you may notice you’re more fatigued, you may have sudden nausea or vomiting, or you may have pain in the upper right side of your abdomen. You may also have a low-grade fever, clay-colored bowel movements, or dark-colored urine.

In many cases, hepatitis A will resolve on its own with no treatment needed. It’s a good idea to see your doctor if you develop symptoms or if you’ve been recently out of the country to an area with poor sanitation. Most people who get hepatitis A will recover with no lasting liver damage.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a more serious form of the disease that usually lasts about six months. This disease passes through bodily fluid contact, especially during sexual interactions. You can also get hepatitis B from sharing infected needles (including tattooing needles), or through medical syringes contaminated with infected blood.

Hepatitis B symptoms can show up anywhere, from a month to four months after exposure. You may notice abdominal pain, fever, dark urine, or joint pain. You may also lose your appetite, experience nausea and vomiting, feel weak and fatigued, and have abdominal pain.

In most cases, hepatitis B will resolve within six months with treatment. Sometimes, however, complications can arise that lead to a chronic infection. This chronic form of the disease can lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and even liver cancer, so it’s important to make sure you get a hepatitis B vaccine.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is the most dangerous form of the disease, and it is also the hardest to get. The virus spreads through infected blood, which puts health care workers and drug users at the biggest risk. The most common way that the disease passes is through infected needles, so make sure you always use clean needles.

The dangerous thing about hepatitis C is it can be a silent killer. In many cases, people won’t show symptoms of hepatitis C until they start seeing signs of the liver damage it’s inflicted. Symptoms include jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and eyes), bruising or bleeding easily, poor appetite, itchy skin, swelling in your legs, fatigue, and spider-like veins on your skin.

Treatments for chronic hepatitis C have improved greatly over the past several years, and these days, the condition is almost always curable. Treatments involve oral medications taken for a few months. The key is catching it before it does serious damage to your liver.

Who’s at Risk?

In most cases, hepatitis transmits through contact with infected blood. This means some of the highest risk populations are people who use injectable drugs. If you fall into this category, reach out to someone to help you get clean, or at least always use clean needles.

Health care workers are also at risk since they handle blood from people who are potentially infected. Nurses who perform blood draws may be at a higher risk, as are healthcare workers who travel to or work in areas with poor sanitation. 

People with tattoos and piercings could also encounter infected needles. If you’re getting a tattoo or piercing, always do so at a reputable and clean location. Ask the tattooist or piercer to let you watch them open a new needle to be certain they aren’t reusing old needles. 

When to Get Tested

The most important time to get tested for hepatitis is as soon as possible after exposure. This includes after you’ve used a dirty needle, gotten a piercing or tattoo, visited an unsanitary location, or had sex with someone who has done any of the above.

If you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, testing for hepatitis B is very important. Hepatitis B can pass from mother to child during childbirth, and in infants, it’s more likely to develop into a chronic condition. However, newborns can receive a vaccine against hepatitis B that will prevent infection in almost all cases. Without the vaccine, 90 percent of newborns develop chronic hepatitis.  

You should also get tested for hepatitis if you start showing any of the symptoms we’ve mentioned above. In particular, jaundice is usually a sign of liver damage, so pay attention to that. Hepatitis C may only show symptoms for a couple of weeks before fading into the background, so don’t ignore an illness because it goes away.

How Often to Get Tested

In general, it’s a good rule of thumb to get tested for hepatitis if you think you’ve been exposed to the virus any time in the last six months. If you face exposure regularly for any reason, you may need to get routine Hepatitis Testing.

The CDC recommends routine Hepatitis Testing every six months for people who have transplanted tissue. People who use drugs, including snorting cocaine, and using other non-injectable drugs, should get tested routinely. A routine screen should also be a habit for anyone who has multiple sexual partners or a long-term sexual relationship with someone who has tested positive for hepatitis, especially hepatitis C.

If you are pregnant, a healthcare worker, or have nonsexual contact with someone with hepatitis C; you need to have routine screenings. If you are pregnant, one screening at the beginning of your pregnancy will be fine. And, of course, if you are potentially exposed or start showing symptoms, get tested immediately.

Hepatitis A Testing

If you believe you have been exposed to hepatitis A, you can get a screening done for this strain. There are two main antibodies this test checks for: IgM and IgG. The body first produces IgM antibodies about two or three weeks after infection, often before symptoms even start to show up.

If any IgM antibodies show up on your screen, it means you have or have had recent acute hepatitis A. If your IgM test comes back negative, you may want to run an IgG test, as IgG antibodies show up later in the disease process and stay in your bloodstream for life. If your IgG test comes back positive, it means you have had hepatitis A at some point in the past.

It’s important to note that if you’ve ever received a hepatitis A immunization, you will have the IgG antibodies in your bloodstream since that’s how your body fights off the infection. Even if you haven’t had the immunization, you may still see those antibodies show up; about 30 percent of American adults carry IgG antibodies. In the case of IgM tests, IgG tests, and total antibody tests, which check for both antibodies, the screen will involve getting blood drawn.

Hepatitis B Testing

Hepatitis B panels look for proteins that the hepatitis virus produces in your body. They may also look for the antibodies your body produces to fight the virus or even the DNA of the virus itself. Depending on how your results come out, you can see if you currently have the virus, if you have had it in the past, or if you’ve had the immunization.

If your hepatitis B surface antibody scan (Anti-HBs) comes back positive, but your core antibody total (Anti-HBc IgG+IgM) comes back negative, it means you’ve had the vaccination but not the disease. If both tests come back positive, it means you’ve had the disease before and may be at risk of developing it again if your immune system is ever compromised.

If your surface antigen test (HBsAg) comes back positive, it means you currently have an active form of hepatitis B. A positive core antibody scan (Anti-HBc IgM) in combination with this result means you have an acute infection. A negative core antibody scan means your infection is chronic.

If you find out you have a chronic infection, you may choose to run a test for hepatitis B e antigens and antibodies, as well as DNA from the hepatitis B virus. If your test comes back negative for the antigens and positive for the antibodies, you are a disease carrier. You have the virus, but it’s not likely to do any liver damage. If the scan picks up on the hepatitis B virus DNA, chances are your chronic condition is causing damage to your liver. 

Hepatitis C Testing 

Hepatitis C tests look for one of two things: the antibodies your body produces to fight the virus or the RNA of the virus itself. Most of these scans look for the antibodies, with the RNA used as a backup measure. If your antibody scan is positive or inconclusive, the RNA scan can give you more information.

If your antibody test comes back negative, it can mean one of two things. Either you do not have the infection, or not enough time has passed for your body to produce detectable levels of antibodies. If you or your doctor suspects you may still have hepatitis C, you should wait a little longer and run the test again.

If your antibody test comes back positive or indeterminate, you may run an RNA scan. If this test comes back negative, you may have had the infection in the past, but you do not have it now. If the RNA scan comes back positive, you have a current infection.

Additional Liver Testing

If any of your hepatitis screens come back positive, you’ll need to run some additional tests to determine if you have liver damage and to what extent, if so.

Your doctor may also want to look at your levels of bilirubin, albumin, and total protein. These are all connected with liver function and can fluctuate with severe liver damage.

Learn More About Hepatitis Testing

If you suspect you may have any of the hepatitis viruses, it’s a good idea to get a hepatitis test. Sure, hepatitis A is harmless enough, but it’s hard to tell the difference between a simple hepatitis A infection and a hepatitis C infection that can lead to serious liver damage. Hepatitis testing is the only way to know, and your life is worth the investment.

If you’d like to get your hepatitis tests run, here are links to three Hepatitis tests that you can get select to get started:

– Hepatitis A Test

– Hepatitis B Test

– Hepatitis C Antibody, HCV RNA & Liver Panel

Check out the rest of our site at ultalabtests.com/shop, where we have over 2,000 lab tests, including the full spectrum of hepatitis screens available today.

We are here to help you know your health, one test at a time.