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Tests provide only a snapshot of a person’s blood at the time of testing. They will not tell us how long a person may have had the disease or when the person was first infected. We use two different tests to look for hepatitis C.

The first test is for antibodies. When someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus, they create antibodies to fight the infection. They continue to make them even after the virus is gone. A positive antibody shows the virus was there but doesn’t tell us when.

The second test looks for genetic material from the hepatitis C virus. This material is called RNA, and tells us the virus is still present. Comparing the types of RNA found in different patients can also tell us if the infections came from the same source.

About 25% of people fight off hepatitis C in the first six months of their infection—without any treatment. During that six months, the person will have RNA and could spread the virus. Once the virus clears, or once an infected person completes treatment, the virus is gone and the RNA test will be negative. So, even though a person has a negative RNA now, it does not mean they never had the virus.

The figure on the right shows how we use the two different tests to determine infection status.