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Working With Your Provider to Diagnose and Treat Hepatitis C Diagnosis

August 20, 2015

If you've been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C, you'll have an ongoing relationship with your doctor as you go through treatment. This will include blood tests to check your viral load and see how well your medications are working.

The first step, of course, is diagnosis, which requires a blood test to determine whether the hepatitis C antibody is present in your body. A positive antibody test means you have been exposed to the virus, but you'll need another blood test to see if you are infected. This blood test will check your viral load, which determines whether the virus is active and if you need treatment. (That is, if you test positive for the antibody but have no measurable viral load, you have spontaneously cleared the virus from your body without treatment.) This round of testing also determines your genotype, or strain, of hepatitis C. There are six genotypes, and some are easier to treat than others.

Note that the routine blood tests you get at your annual checkup don't detect hepatitis C. If you're concerned you may have contracted the disease, or fall into one of the following risk factor groups, talk to your doctor about being tested:

  • You were born between 1945 and 1965.
  • You had a blood transfusion before 1992.
  • You have had sex with someone who has hepatitis C.
  • You have used intravenous drugs -- even once, even long ago.
  • Your mother or a sibling (who could have gotten hepatitis C at birth from your mom, meaning that you're at risk, too) had hepatitis C.
  • You are a healthcare worker who may have been exposed.
  • You received blood or organs from a donor who tested positive for the virus.
  • You are living with HIV.


Testing, Testing

During your treatment, which can last a few months or more, you'll have frequent blood tests to determine if the virus is still present and how well your liver is functioning. You may also have imaging tests, such as a CT scan, MRI or ultrasound to check for liver cancer. If you need treatment for liver damage, there will be blood work to see how that treatment is working.

The doctor will also check your hemoglobin levels at each visit, as anemia is a common side effect of interferon and ribavirin, the most common medications that fight hepatitis C. If your levels are low, you may need a medication to stimulate your body to make more red blood cells, which can help provide relief from symptoms of anemia, such as severe fatigue.

Doctors are increasingly recommending testing to check whether the virus has caused cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. In a small number of instances, cirrhosis can lead to liver cancer. A blood test that checks your liver function is not enough. Your doctor may do lab tests, noninvasive X-rays, or in a few cases, a liver biopsy. Usually done on an outpatient basis, the biopsy is a quick procedure where the doctor uses a needle to extract a tiny amount of tissue from your liver. (You may feel discomfort at the incision site for a short while, but complications are rare.) You will usually get the results back in a week or so. If you have cirrhosis, you will need to be checked for liver cancer each year, even if you clear the virus with therapy.

The goal with hepatitis C therapy is for the patient's viral load to be undetectable during treatment -- and stay undetectable after treatment ends.

Copyright © 2015 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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This article was provided by Remedy Health Media.

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