Chronic hepatitis C can result in severe complications, including
permanent scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). Prompt diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the risk of long-term liver damage.

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). HCV infection causes inflammation, which can affect overall liver function.

Hepatitis C can be acute, lasting up to 6 months, or chronic. Chronic hepatitis C can lead to liver damage, liver scarring, and liver cancer.

Approximately 2.4 million people in the United States were living with hepatitis C during 2013–2016.

Older data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported suggests that 5–25 people out of every 100 who experience HCV infection will go on to develop cirrhosis in 10–20 years.

If you’re living with chronic hepatitis C, limiting or avoiding alcohol altogether can help reduce your risk of cirrhosis.

Certain factors can increase your risk of cirrhosis, including:

Compensated cirrhosis occurs when the body still functions despite reduced liver function and scarring. If liver functions are breaking down, it’s known as decompensated cirrhosis.

Many people do not experience noticeable symptoms until severe liver damage has occurred.

Over time, cirrhosis may cause the following symptoms:

Sometimes, a physical exam and certain lab tests may be enough for your healthcare professional to diagnose advanced liver disease.

Your healthcare professional may want to test your:

They may also recommend imaging tests, such as:

  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • transient elastography scan
  • ultrasound

Your healthcare professional may order a liver biopsy to confirm the presence of cirrhosis. They’ll insert a fine needle into a small abdominal incision to collect a sample of liver cells for further examination under a microscope.

At the point of cirrhosis, the liver is unable to heal itself. Cirrhosis can change the way blood flows through your body, increasing pressure in the veins that supply blood to your liver (portal hypertension).

Portal hypertension can cause:

  • fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites), which can lead to a severe infection known as bacterial peritonitis.
  • fluid buildup in the legs (edema)
  • swelling of the spleen (splenomegaly)
  • enlarged veins (varices) in the esophagus or stomach, which can lead to life threatening bleeding (variceal hemorrhage)

Other complications of cirrhosis include:

Cirrhosis can also affect the way your body processes certain medications.

Direct-acting antivirals and other hepatitis C medications can treat early stage cirrhosis. These medications may slow the progression of liver disease and liver failure.

Complications caused by advanced cirrhosis may make it unsafe to use certain medications. A liver transplant is the only effective cure for advanced cirrhosis.

According to 2015 data from the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, 90% of people who received a liver transplant from a deceased donor survived 1 year after the procedure, and 77% survived 5 years.

People with cirrhosis can live for decades, especially if it’s diagnosed early and managed well.

If you haven’t already, consider making an appointment with a gastroenterologist or hepatologist to discuss your options for treatment and monitor for complications.

Using direct-acting antivirals might help slow or prevent the progression to cirrhosis. If left untreated, cirrhosis can lead to liver failure.