An acute viral hepatitis panel is used to help detect and/or diagnose acute liver infection and inflammation that is due to one of the three most common hepatitis viruses: hepatitis A virus (HAV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), or hepatitis C virus (HCV).
There are several causes of hepatitis and the accompanying symptoms, so these tests are used to determine if symptoms are due to a current infection with a virus and to identify which virus in particular is causing the disease. These tests may also help determine if someone has been exposed to one of the viruses even before symptoms develop.
An acute viral hepatitis panel typically consists of the following tests:
Hepatitis A antibody, IgM—these antibodies typically develop 2 to 3 weeks after first being infected and persist for about 2 to 6 months. Hepatitis A IgM antibodies develop early in the course of infection, so a positive hepatitis A IgM test is usually considered diagnostic for acute hepatitis A in a person with signs and symptoms.
Hepatitis B core antibody, IgM—this is an antibody produced against the hepatitis B core antigen. It is the first antibody produced in response to a hepatitis B infection and, when detected, may indicate an acute infection. It may also be present in people with chronic hepatitis B when flares of disease activity occur.
Hepatitis B surface Ag—this is a protein present on the surface of the hepatitis B virus. It is the earliest indicator of an acute infection but may also be present in the blood of those chronically infected.
Hepatitis C antibody—this test detects antibodies produced in response to an HCV infection. It cannot distinguish between an active or previous infection. If positive, it is typically followed up with other tests to determine if the infection is a current one. (See the article on Hepatitis C for more on this.)
There are some other tests that may be offered as part of a hepatitis panel, depending on the laboratory performing the tests. These may include:
HBV surface antibody—the test for this antibody may sometimes be included in a panel to help determine if an infection has resolved or if a person has developed the antibody after receiving the hepatitis B vaccine and achieved immunity for protection against HBV.
Other tests such as a liver panel or individual tests such as bilirubin, ALT, and AST may be performed to help evaluate liver function in an individual suspected of having hepatitis.
An acute viral hepatitis panel may be ordered when a person has had blood tests done as part of a health checkup that show abnormal results on liver tests or when someone has acute symptoms associated with liver damage such as:
The acute viral hepatitis panel may sometimes be used to screen people when they are at an increased risk for hepatitis B or hepatitis C infection or when it is known that they have been exposed. Below are listed some examples of who may be screened using the panel:
People who have elevated liver enzymes (ALT and AST) with no known cause
For hepatitis C, per a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation, to help identify chronic hepatitis C infections in persons born during 1945-1965 as they are considered at an increased risk
Acute hepatitis B; quantity of hepatitis B surface antigen is too low to detect
Acute or chronic hepatitis C; additional tests are required to make the determination
If other hepatitis tests are performed to help determine prior exposure or previous infection, they may indicate the following:
Hepatitis A antibody, total (IgM and IgG) — if negative, no current or previous HAV infection; if positive, indicates exposure to HAV or the HAV vaccine. An IgM test must be done if an acute infection is suspected.
Hepatitis B core antibody, total (IgM and IgG) — a positive test can indicate exposure to the virus or to HBV vaccine. An IgM test must be performed if an acute infection is suspected.
Hepatitis B surface antibody — if positive, it indicates that a HBV infection has resolved; depending on results of other HBV tests, a negative result may indicate that an infection has not resolved. It will also be positive with a negative hepatitis B core antibody after a person has received a hepatitis B vaccine. (For more on this, see Hepatitis B Testing: What does the test result mean?)
It is possible to be infected with more than one hepatitis virus, and an acute infection with one hepatitis virus can be superimposed on a chronic infection with a different hepatitis virus. In such cases, there may be a positive result for more than one type of virus and care must be taken when interpreting the results.
If all the viral tests are negative, then the antibody or antigen level is too low to detect or the hepatitis is due to some other cause. For more on this and other tests that may be done to determine the cause, see the article on Hepatitis.
The tests that are typically included in an acute viral hepatitis panel may not always be able to tell whether someone has had a previous hepatitis infection or has developed antibodies in response to a vaccine. Usually other types of tests are performed to provide this type of information. See the individual articles on Hepatitis A Testing, Hepatitis B Testing or Hepatitis C Testing for more on this.
The presence of hepatitis A IgM antibodies in the blood are considered diagnostic for acute infection with hepatitis A when the test information is combined with a person's signs and symptoms. When the hepatitis screening test is performed for people who do not have symptoms of acute hepatitis, the presence of hepatitis A IgM antibodies may represent a false-positive result. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended against using the test for screening in people without acute hepatitis symptoms to decrease the possibility of false-positive results.
This article was last reviewed on May 7, 2014. | This article was last modified on May 7, 2014.
The review date indicates when the article was last reviewed from beginning to end to ensure that it reflects the most current science. A review may not require any modifications to the article, so the two dates may not always agree.
The modified date indicates that one or more changes were made to the article. Such changes may or may not result from a full review of the article, so the two dates may not always agree.