Should you be tested for hepatitis C?

Public Health England is urging people to get free testing for the hepatitis C virus, as many are thought to be living with the condition without realising it.

If left untreated for many years, hepatitis C – also sometimes called hep C or HCV – can cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage to your liver. But now, new treatments that work quickly and are easier to tolerate than older treatments can cure the virus in the vast majority of cases – though the earlier the disease is caught, the better and faster it can be treated.

According to the NHS, an estimated 215,000 people in the UK have hepatitis C. Public Health England (PHE) also claims a third of people with long-term hepatitis C are over the age of 50, with many having acquired the infection years or even decades earlier.

The problem with hepatitis C is it doesn’t usually produce any noticeable symptoms until it has caused significant liver damage. Plus when symptoms do arise, they can be similar to other conditions. These symptoms can include muscles aches and a high temperature (similar to the symptoms of flu), constant tiredness, poor appetite, nausea and sickness and stomach pain.

Who should get the test?

The only way to find out if you have hepatitis C is to get tested. Since the virus is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact, PHE is advising the following groups of people to get the test:

  • Those who received a blood transfusion before September 1991 or a blood product before 1986 in the UK.
  • Anyone who has shared needles or other equipment to inject drugs, even if it was just once or many years ago.
  • Those who have had medical or dental treatment abroad in unsterile conditions.
  • People who have had tattoos, piercings, acupuncture, electrolysis or semi-permanent make-up using equipment that may have been unsterilised.
  • Anyone who’s had unprotected sex with someone who has, or might have, hepatitis C.
  • Those who have shared a razor or toothbrush with someone who has, or might have, hepatitis C.

“We strongly encourage anyone who may have been at risk of hep C infection to get tested, whether or not they have any symptoms,” says Dr Helen Harris, clinical scientist at PHE’s immunisation, hepatitis and blood safety department.

“The sooner treatment starts, the greater the chance of avoiding long-term health complications. If people are unsure, they should visit their GP or take a quick online quiz to find out whether they might have been exposed to the hep C virus and would benefit from a test.

“We are hopeful that the increased access to improved treatments over recent years has contributed to the latest fall in deaths from severe hep C-related liver disease. This, combined with interventions to prevent infection in the first place, can help us to achieve our vision of eliminating hep C as a major public health threat in the UK.”

If there’s a risk you may have been infected with hepatitis C – or if you have any of the symptoms on an ongoing basis – see your GP, who can give you a free blood test. You can also get the test from your local sexual health clinic, genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or drug treatment service. The results are usually ready within two weeks.

Not sure you should be tested? Why not have a private chat with your Careway pharmacist? Find your nearest Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.