The Test Sample
What is being tested?
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). It is one of several various causes of hepatitis, a condition characterized by inflammation and enlargement of the liver. This test detects antibodies in the blood that are produced by the immune system in response to a hepatitis A infection.
Hepatitis A is one of five "hepatitis viruses" identified so far, including B, C, D, and E, that are known to cause the disease. While hepatitis A can cause a severe, acute disease that typically lasts 1 to 2 months, it does not cause a chronic infection as do some of the other hepatitis viruses.
Hepatitis A is spread, most commonly, from person-to person through stool (fecal) contamination or by ingesting food or water contaminated by the stool of an infected person (a foodborne illness). Recognized risk factors for hepatitis A include close contact with an infected person, international travel, household or personal contact with a child who attends a child care center, household or personal contact with a newly arriving international adoptee, a recognized foodborne outbreak, men who have sex with men, and use of illegal drugs.
Although there are many causes of hepatitis, the symptoms remain the same. In hepatitis, the liver is damaged and unable to function normally. It cannot process toxins or waste products such as bilirubin for their removal from the body. During the course of the disease, bilirubin and liver enzyme levels in the blood can increase. While tests such as bilirubin or a liver panel can tell a health practitioner that someone has hepatitis, they do not identify the cause. Antibody tests for hepatitis viruses may help determine the cause.
There are two different classes of hepatitis A antibody that may be tested, IgM and IgG. When a person is exposed to hepatitis A, the body first produces hepatitis A IgM antibodies. These antibodies typically develop 2 to 3 weeks after first being infected (and are detectable before the onset of symptoms) and persist for about 3 to 6 months. Hepatitis A IgG antibodies are produced within 1 to 2 weeks of the IgM antibodies and usually persist for life.
- Because hepatitis A IgM antibodies develop early in the course of infection, a positive hepatitis A IgM test is usually considered diagnostic for a current or recent infection of hepatitis A. This test may be done as part of an acute viral hepatitis panel used to determine which virus is causing symptoms when viral hepatitis is suspected.
- An HAV IgG test may be used to help determine if a person has been infected in the past and has some immunity to the disease.
- A total hepatitis A antibody test detects the presence of both the IgM and IgG antibodies, thus can identify current and past infections.
A vaccine that prevents hepatitis A has been available since 1995. Historically, infection rates varied cyclically, with nationwide increases every 10-15 years. However, rates have declined in general since the vaccine was introduced. In 2010, the number of acute hepatitis A cases reported nationwide declined by approximately 53% from about 3,600 in 2006.
How is the sample collected for testing?
A blood sample is obtained by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm.
NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.
Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.
Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?
No test preparation is needed.