How Hepatitis Is Diagnosed

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Depending on the cause and how advanced the disease is, hepatitis typically is diagnosed with some combination of blood work, imaging tests, and liver biopsy. If viral hepatitis is suspected, blood tests are run to detect the presence of a specific hepatitis virus or for antibodies produced by the immune system to fight that virus. Blood tests to look for signs of liver damage may also be used to diagnose viral hepatitis, as well as the non-viral types. More extensive testing may be used to help fully diagnose and assess hepatitis of all types.


The Five Types of Viral Hepatitis

Labs and Tests

Symptoms that might prompt a healthcare provider to suspect a patient has hepatitis include flu-like or gastrointestinal symptoms, along with jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, dark urine, or pale stools). These symptoms, plus a medical history and physical exam, are likely to result in the ordering of blood tests.

Liver Function Tests

The blood can provide a great deal of information about how well the liver is working. A liver function test, or liver panel, is used to look for markers of liver disease caused by hepatitis, such as elevated bilirubin (a by-product of blood that's responsible for jaundice) and certain liver enzymes that help with essential functions.

Normally, the liver keeps tight control of these enzymes. But when it's damaged, enzymes can escape into the blood where they can be detected in a small sample drawn by your healthcare practitioner.

The four most common enzymes tested for when liver damage is suspected are:

  • Alanine aminotransaminase (ALT)
  • Aspartate aminotransferase (AST)
  • Gamma-glutamyl transaminase (GGT)
  • Total Bilirubin

In general, testing for elevated liver enzymes is a solid approach to diagnosing viral hepatitis, but there is one drawback: Although the results can determine if there is liver inflammation, or possibly damage, they can't reveal the cause—in other words, which hepatitis virus is behind the infection.

Antibody Tests

The immune system makes two types of antibodies specific to individual viruses: As soon as the body identifies one, it produces IgM antibodies to fight that specific virus. Toward the end of infection, the body produces IgG antibodies that also are specific to the virus but function to provide future immunity.

Tests exist for both IgM and IgG antibodies specific to three hepatitis viruses: hepatitis A (HAV), hepatitis B (HBV), and hepatitis C (HCV).

Doctor talking to patient in office
John Fedele/Blend Images/Getty Images

Direct Viral Measures

In addition to detecting antibodies for HBV and HCV, tests called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests can be used to directly measure the amount of virus in the blood.


Although imaging tests cannot detect a viral infection of the liver, certain ones can reveal inflammation, changes in size, and tumors that can be consequences of chronic infection or liver disease caused by hepatitis of any type.

  • Abdominal ultrasound: This test can evaluate abnormalities in the liver and abdomen, and may also detect the fluid build-up in the abdomen, which can occur with liver failure. 
  • Computerized axial tomography (CT): An abdominal CT scan can detect changes in the size and density of the liver and may visualize masses or signs of early cancer (a potential complication of hepatitis).
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI can pick up on abnormalities that suggest liver dysfunction or cancer. 


A liver biopsy is a section of tissue taken from the organ and evaluated under a microscope to look for identifying features disease.

The most common type of liver biopsy is called a percutaneous biopsy, which involves inserting a hollow needle through the abdomen into the liver through which a sample of tissue can be extracted.

This is an outpatient procedure, which means it doesn't require a hospital stay. Usually, only local anesthesia is necessary (to numb the area into which the needle will be inserted). However, a sedative can be used if needed.

A Word From Verywell

Because the symptoms of hepatitis can be mild or mimic other diseases—if there are any symptoms at all—it can be tricky to diagnose. If you have any symptoms that you think might point to a liver problem—especially jaundice—see your healthcare provider. A simple blood test may be all that's necessary to determine if you have hepatitis and if you should be treated.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take to get hepatitis blood test results back?

    Antibody tests for hepatitis can take anywhere between a few days and a few weeks to get results. Some clinics offer hepatitis C rapid tests, which can give results in 20 to 30 minutes.

  • How soon can you test for hepatitis after infection?

    Hepatitis C antibodies can be detected in a blood test about eight to 11 weeks after being exposed to the virus. Antibodies for hepatitis B can usually be detected about four weeks after exposure, with a possible range of one to nine weeks. Hepatitis A antibodies can appear in about two weeks.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C testing.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C questions and answers for health professionals.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis B questions and answers for health professionals.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis A questions and answers for the public.

Additional Reading

By Charles Daniel
 Charles Daniel, MPH, CHES is an infectious disease epidemiologist, specializing in hepatitis.