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The Importance of Hepatitis C Antibody Tests

written by: Teresa Martin•edited by: Emma Lloyd•updated: 6/26/2010

Hepatitis C is a silent disease. Often people have the disease with no knowledge and may even be a carrier. Testing for hepatitis C can catch the disease in the early stages and prevent liver disease that may be irreversible.

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    What is Hepatitis C?

    Hepatitis C is a virus, formerly known as non-A, non-B hepatitis and is non-symptomatic in most people during the early phase. Exposure to hepatitis C is through contact with infectious blood. Since the condition is asymptomatic, exposure can occur through receiving donated blood from an individual who was asymptomatic at the time of their blood donation. Once the virus enters the body, it travels to the liver, entering the cells of the liver known as hepatocytes. The normal immunological response of the body produces an increase in lymphocytes to the liver which causes the liver to become inflamed. The inflamed liver is termed "hepatitis".

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    Who Should Be Tested for Hepatitis C?

    Hepatitis C is transmitted through exposure to blood, most often through dirty needle stick or receiving a tattoo with suspected needle contamination. It is possible for hepatitis C to be acquired following blood transfusion. This is rare since extensive testing of donated blood as well as interviews with donors exclude most contaminated blood.

    Symptoms of hepatitis C take weeks to appear, with an average incubation time of 7 weeks. Certainly, once symptoms appear which are very general, including lethargy, muscle aches, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, testing may be indicated. The physician would order a hepatitis C test if symptoms and history indicate possible exposure to the virus. Abnormal blood tests such as an increased bilirubin level, elevated ALT (Alanine aminotransferase) or AST (Aspartate transaminase) are indicators of abnormal liver function and would be followed with viral hepatitis testing.

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    The Hepatitis C Antibody Test

    In the presence of something the body sees as foreign, antibodies are produced against the foreign substance. Laboratory testing for an antibody can indicate exposure to an antigen, in this case the Hepatitis C virus. The test commonly used in laboratory procedures is an Enzyme Linked Immuno-Sorbent Antibody (ELISA). ELISA testing is very sensitive. There is a possibility of false positives due to the sensitivity so when an ELISA test for hepatitis C is positive, physicians will generally order a second confirmatory test.

    Hepatitis testing with ELISA methodology requires a blood sample be collected from a vein. The blood is then allowed to clot and a sample of serum is then tested with ELISA that is specific for hepatitis C. If the ELISA test for hepatitis C is positive the usual confirmatory test ordered by physicians is RIBA (recombinant immunoblot assay). If ELISA is positive and RIBA is negative, then hepatitis C is ruled out. If both ELISA and RIBA are positive, then hepatitis C is confirmed.

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    The Prognosis

    One reason it is important to diagnose hepatits C as soon as possible is the bodies own effort to respond to the presence of the virus creates an inflammation in the liver that can be debillitating. Chronic inflammation leads to a condition called fibrosis which in layman's terms is like a scarring of the liver. The fibrosis is really tissue that grows to fill in areas of damage. The fibrotic tissue is more rigid than liver tissue which leads to diminished functioning. Should the fibrosis continue to a severe stage, it becomes cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is not reversible. The objective of treating hepatitis C is to prevent this stage.

    Early detection is essential in treating hepatits C. With possible exposure consulting a physician can result in rapid response and prevention of chronic hepatitis.

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