Hepatitis C antibodies are a protein-based substance that the immune system produces in response to an infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The antibodies recognize the virus within the body and try to destroy it. The hepatitis C antibodies can take a few weeks to a few months to be detectable through blood tests. Testing positive for the antibodies does not mean that there is an active HCV infection. Additional blood tests will need to be performed to confirm the presence of live hepatitis C virus.
Antibodies are immunoglobulins, which are proteins developed by the immune system in direct response to a specific antigen. Bacteria and viruses are classified as antigens. The antibody formed has a receptor site at the tip of the protein that only binds with the exact antigen for which it was developed. Hepatitis C antibodies are produced by plasma cells within the humoral immune system and are then secreted into the bloodstream.
The test for hepatitis C antibodies may not be a helpful diagnostic tool for people who are immunocompromised, as they do not develop antibodies because their immune system is not functional. If a person has a positive test result showing hepatitis C antibodies, the doctor will order another blood test called the HCV ribonucleic acid (RNA) test to determine if a chronic HCV infection exists. Most people do not have any symptoms during the acute phase of the illness. If the virus is still present in the body after six months, the infection is classified as chronic hepatitis C.
Chronic hepatitis C virus causes inflammation of the liver, which eventually can cause scarring of the liver. The scarring, or cirrhosis, of the liver impedes the normal functioning of the organ. Elevated levels of liver enzymes are common if a patient has hepatitis C. Most people with hepatitis C will only develop a mild form of the infection that results in less damage to the liver. Total liver failure is less common with HCV than with the other forms of hepatitis.
Exposure to the HCV virus will cause hepatitis C antibodies to form even if there is not an active infection. Those most at risk for developing HCV are healthcare workers and people who use injectable drugs and share contaminated syringes. Another high-risk category are people who need periodic blood transfusions, such as hemophiliacs and people with kidney disease.
The presence of hepatitis C antibodies does not imply hepatitis C immunity. Hepatitis C virus strains can be reactivated even after treatment destroys all the active virus detected in the bloodstream. Hepatitis C antibodies will remain detectable for the remainder of the person’s lifespan.