Hepatitis C: An In-Depth Guide

Understanding hepatitis C testing

The main reason for getting a hepatitis C test is exposure to blood that may contain the hepatitis C virus. Testing usually happens three to six months after exposure. Early testing and diagnosis improves health because the liver can be monitored and treatment options can be considered.

To learn more about how hepatitis C is diagnosed, check out Diagnostic tests.

Reasons for someone to get a hepatitis C test

  • Possibly being exposed to the hepatitis C virus through contact with someone else's blood, either recently or in the past. 
  • Participating in an activity that can pass hepatitis C from one person to another, even if it was just one time. (For more information, see How Hep C transmission happens)
  • Experiencing symptoms consistent with either early (or acute) infection or, more commonly, advanced liver disease. (For more information, see Signs and Symptoms)
  • Finding out during a routine checkup that levels of liver enzymes ALT and AST are outside of the normal range. High liver enzyme levels can indicate current liver damage, which may be caused by hepatitis infection. 
  • Having lived in a country where Hep C is common. 
  • Having had a blood transfusion or organ transplant in Canada before 1992.
  • Being HIV positive. It is recommended that all people who are HIV positive be tested for Hep C at least once. (For more information, see Co-infection with HIV)    

Timing of the hepatitis C test

Testing for hepatitis C commonly happens three to six months after exposure. It is necessary to wait because the first Hep C test is an antibody test, and it takes six to nine weeks for the body to produce Hep C antibodies.

There is also the possibility that a person may clear the Hep C virus on their own. This happens in approximately 20% of infections and usually occurs within six months after exposure. In rare cases it can take up to nine months to develop antibodies.

Why early testing is important

If hepatitis C is discovered early, the liver can be monitored to determine how quickly liver damage is progressing. Liver damage can develop without any symptoms, so monitoring is the best way to assess progression.

Being cured from hepatitis C through treatment can prevent liver damage and in some cases liver damage can be reversed after treatment.  Treatment is generally more successful when the liver is less damaged.

Some government programs that pay for hepatitis C treatment require that people have a certain level of liver injury to be eligible for treatment coverage.

Where hepatitis C testing happens

Hepatitis C testing is available through most doctors and healthcare settings and at some needle and syringe programs. Places that can perform the required blood tests needed to diagnose hepatitis C include:

  • doctors’ offices
  • community health centres
  • walk-in clinics, including some anonymous HIV testing clinics and sexual health clinics (although the testing for Hep C is not anonymous, the results are confidential)

Revised 2016.