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Overview of HCV Disease Progression
If acute hepatitis C infection (HCV) becomes a chronic infection it can eventually progress to a more serious disease. Over time it can produce fibrosis (light, moderate and severe scarring), cirrhosis (extensive scarring), decompensated cirrhosis (potentially life-threatening scarring), liver cancer, the need for a new liver (liver transplant) and for some it could lead to death. This fact sheet will discuss the various stages of hepatitis C disease progression.
According to the CDC there are approximately 29,700 acute infections of hepatitis C annually in the United States. There is not a lot of information about the course of acute hepatitis C and what we do know about acute HCV infection is mostly from experimental studies where hepatitis C was given to chimpanzees and from small studies of people who acquired hepatitis C from blood transfusions and needle-stick accidents.
The term cirrhosis is derived from the Greek term scirrhus and is used to describe the orange or tawny surface of the liver. Chronic hepatitis C infection can lead to liver damage through the development of fibrosis (scarring) tissue in the liver. After years or decades of infection, liver fibrosis can become so extensive that the architecture of the liver is altered as a result of excessive scarring, development of small nodules, and changes in liver tissue. This is called cirrhosis. As cirrhosis further develops, scar tissue replaces healthy liver cells and the ability of the liver to perform its many functions is impaired.
Steatosis, also known as fatty infiltrates in the liver or Fatty Liver, is a condition characterized by the accumulation of fat in the liver, and it is commonly seen in people infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). It is estimated that about 55% (range: 34.8 to 81.2%) of HCV positive individuals have steatosis, which is two to three times the prevalence seen in the general population. Studies have found that the combination of hepatitis C and steatosis increases the risk of HCV disease progression and may contribute to the development of liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma, or HCC).