“I would never use a long word where a short one would answer the purpose. I know there are professors in this country who ‘ligate’ arteries. Other surgeons only tie them, and it stops the bleeding just as well.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes
If you were born from 1945 through 1965, elevated liver enzymes, or have other risk factors, your medical provider will likely recommend testing you for hepatitis C. The hepatitis C test may require two tests. First, there his an antibody test. If the hepatitis C antibody test is negative, you don’t have hepatitis C. If the antibody test is positive, you may have hepatitis C. You will need a second test, called a viral load test to confirm if you are positive or negative for hepatitis C.
If the hepatitis C viral load test is positive, then your world is about to change. It begins with more tests, and the process can be overwhelming. Understanding medical terminology or medicalese, is like learning a new language. Worse yet, it is sometimes spoken in a code I jokingly call TLAs for Three-Letter Acronyms. I’ll help you decipher the code, beginning with common lab tests your medical provider will order.
All living organisms have genetic differences, including viruses, so one lab you will need is a genotype test. There are seven genotypes and many subtypes. Genotypes are assigned a number (1 through 7). Subtypes have a letter after the number, such as genotype 1a. Most people in the U.S. have genotype 1. The genotype test helps your provider determine what drugs to use and the length of your treatment. Genotype 7 was discovered in 2014, and to date there is only one person known to have it.
Another blood test that may be ordered is a liver or hepatic panel. This assesses liver activity. A component of this test that is frequently abnormal for hepatitis C patients is the ALT or alanine aminotransferase. An elevated ALT indicates that there is inflammation in the liver.
If your ALT test is a bit high, don’t panic. Your liver is doing its job by trying to keep ahead of hepatitis C, and in doing so, it manufactures more ALT. Conversely, if you have hepatitis C and normal ALT levels, don’t worry either. Although normal ALT levels with hepatitis C is less common, people who have this often have a slower rate of disease progression. The bottom line is to remain calm either way. You don’t have enough information to panic, and besides, panicking makes everything worse.
Sometimes the worst part about getting lab tests is waiting for results. Try to put this part out of your mind. The results will be what they will be. Here are a few more tips:
Keep copies of your labs. Information is power, even if you do not know what you are looking at yet. Eventually you will learn to crack the code and speak medicalese like an expert.
If you don’t know what you are looking at, lab reports can cause needless worry. Labs need to be interpreted by a qualified medical professional. An abnormal lab does not necessarily indicate an abnormality.
Never let a lab test tell you how you feel. Plenty of people have abnormal labs, but still feel good; or normal labs and feel lousy. Stay tuned to your body, not to your lab results.
A version of this post first appeared on Lucinda Porter’s blog at Every Day Health, Navigating Hepatitis C.