For health professionals: Hepatitis C
Get detailed information on hepatitis C for health professionals.
On this page
- What health professionals need to know about hepatitis C
- Screening and testing
- Clinical manifestations
- Diagnostic tests
- For more information
What health professionals need to know about hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is not a vaccine-preventable disease.
Hepatitis C is reportable by laboratories and clinicians to local public health authorities in all provinces and territories.
- hepatitis C antibody and nucleic acid amplification testing (NAAT) methods for screening the blood supply were implemented in 1992
- prior to this implementation, thousands were infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) after receiving blood or blood products
- universal blood supply screening has:
- virtually eliminated the hepatitis C transmission risk via transfusion
- significantly improved the quality of the blood supply
Consult the national case definition for additional information.
Screening and testing
We recommend screening individuals for HCV using a risk-based approach.
- Health care providers in Canada are encouraged to provide risk-based screening.
- In addition to risk-based screening, testing is recommended for individuals with symptoms or clinical clues of liver disease, or abnormal liver biochemistry.
- Hepatitis C testing is also indicated for individuals who are diagnosed with viral hepatitis B (HBV) or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Screening is recommended for individuals with potential exposure to HCV through the following risk factors:
- injection, intranasal or inhalation drug use with shared equipment, even once
- exposure to non-sterile medical, dental or personal services equipment via:
- occupational injuries (e.g., health care workers exposed to blood from needle stick injuries)
- unsafe tattooing or body piercing practices using non-sterile equipment
- shared personal care items
- surgical procedures
- receipt of blood, blood products or organ transplant before 1992 in Canada
- receipt of invasive medical procedures in countries where infection prevention and control practices are not standardized
- engaging in sexual behaviour where blood may be present (e.g., condomless anal intercourse)
- being born in, travelled to, or lived in a region with high hepatitis C prevalence, such as:
- East Asia and Pacific
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia
- Latin America and the Caribbean
- the Middle East and North Africa
- Sub-Saharan Africa
- being born to a mother who is HCV-positive
Some populations are disproportionately affected by HCV:
- gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (gbMSM)
- currently or previously incarcerated individuals
- unstably housed and homeless individuals
- Indigenous peoples
- individuals from countries with high HCV prevalence
Hepatitis C can have different clinical manifestations depending on whether it is an acute or a chronic infection.
Acute hepatitis C infection
Acute hepatitis C infection is asymptomatic in most individuals (60% to 75%).
If symptoms/signs are present, they can include:
- elevated serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT)
- right upper quadrant (RUQ) abdominal discomfort
These symptoms may last for 2 to 12 weeks.
Chronic hepatitis C infection
Approximately 25% of those infected with the HCV will spontaneously clear the virus within 6 months. However, in most cases (75%), the infection will become chronic. Chronic hepatitis C is often asymptomatic.
Some individuals with chronic hepatitis C infection experience:
- abdominal pain
Fluctuating alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels are characteristic. In addition, thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) may be an indication of cirrhosis. Thrombocytopenia is known to increase with the severity of liver disease.
The late sequelae of chronic hepatitis C infection include:
- liver fibrosis or cirrhosis
- hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer)
Cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma may develop over a period of 20 to 30 years depending on factors such as sex, age, and level of alcohol consumption. Approximately 1% to 5% of individuals with chronic hepatitis C infection will develop hepatocellular carcinoma.
If cirrhosis develops, individuals may experience:
- oesophageal varices
- hepatic encephalopathy
Extrahepatic manifestations are uncommon, but may include:
- lichen planus
- Sjogren's syndrome
- porphyria cutanea tarda
- non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
- membranous glomerulonephritis
- mixed essential cryoglobulinemia
- membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis
The diagnosis of hepatitis C requires 2 types of tests:
- hepatitis C antibody (anti-HCV) test
- hepatitis C ribonucleic acid (RNA) test
HCV antibody testing
HCV antibody testing detects HCV antibodies. A reactive (positive) result indicates that the individual has been exposed to HCV at some point but does not distinguish between current or past infection. HCV antibody testing can be done using standard serology or a licensed point-of-care test. All reactive (positive) HCV antibody tests require additional confirmatory testing.
Window period: It may take 5 to 10 weeks for HCV antibodies to be detected in the blood following exposure. Repeat anti-HCV testing may be required.
HCV RNA testing
HCV RNA testing is used to detect the presence of virus and confirm current HCV infection. It is also used to measure viral load.
Immunocompromised individuals may not develop hepatitis C antibodies and may need to undergo hepatitis C RNA testing to confirm infection.
Hepatitis C is considered a curable infection.
There are 6 major strains (genotypes) of HCV and the distribution of genotypes varies by region. Treatment regimen, duration, and efficacy may vary depending on the genotype.
In Canada, HCV genotype 1 is the most common.
The goal of hepatitis C treatment is to achieve a sustained virologic response (SVR), which is an undetectable viral load in the blood following treatment.
In recent years, hepatitis C treatment has evolved to include a combination of drugs called direct-acting antivirals (DAAs). These medications are better tolerated and more effective than previous treatment regimens.
The short-course interferon-free DAA treatments:
- have high SVR (>90%),
- range from 8 to 24 weeks, and
- have few adverse effects.
Individuals with chronic hepatitis C infection will need further assessment and should be considered for treatment, regardless of fibrosis score. A hepatologist, gastroenterologist, or health care provider with experience in the management of viral hepatitis should be consulted.
Clinicians should consult with their provincial/territorial hepatitis C programs for more information on coverage of treatment through provincial/territorial formularies.
For more information
- Hepatitis C virus (HCV): Screening and testing for health professionals (infographic)
- Canada Communicable Disease Report: Hepatitis C in Canada and the importance of risk-based screening
- Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care: Recommendations on hepatitis C screening for adults
- Primary care management of chronic hepatitis C: Professional desk reference 2009
- Hepatitis Education Canada: Hepatitis C virus pre- and post-test checklists (PDF)
- The management of chronic hepatitis C: 2018 guideline update from the Canadian Association for the Study of the Liver (PDF)
- Hepatitis C virus: Pathogen safety data sheet - Infectious substances
- Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada: The Reproductive Care of Women Living With Hepatitis C Infection
- CATIE: Hepatitis C drugs approved in Canada for adults
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