Hepatitis C is a bloodborne illness that affects your liver. It’s caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The virus is spread from person to person through contact with infected blood.

After the virus has spread to a new host, it must seek out and attach itself to the cells of their liver. Once the virus has infected the liver cells, it can reproduce. This is why the virus is associated with liver disease.

HCV infection may be short term (acute) or long term (chronic). When you first develop the disease, it’s considered to be acute. This phase lasts for about 6 months.

Many people don’t experience any symptoms during this time and don’t know they have the virus. If your body doesn’t clear, or rid itself, of the virus, you’ll go on to develop chronic hepatitis C.

The earlier you’re treated for hepatitis C, the better. So it’s important to understand the life cycle of the virus. It has eight stages:

Stage 1

HCV makes itself at home in a liver cell. The virus is covered with a coating that contains specific proteins. These proteins locate and attach to an element on the surface of your liver cell called a receptor. The receptor receives signals for your liver cell.

Stage 2

The virus enters your liver cell’s outer barrier. The barrier then surrounds the virus, swallows it up, and brings it into the cell.

Stage 3

The virus coating breaks down. Viral RNA carrying genetic information is released into your liver cell. This may happen when the virus penetrates the outer barrier. It could also be due to liver enzymes dissolving the cell.

Stage 4

The viral RNA prepares to reproduce. It mimics your liver cell’s RNA and begins producing its RNA materials. It may also prevent your liver cell from functioning properly. Sometimes, the viral RNA causes your liver cell to reproduce, too.

Stage 5

Things amp up as the viral RNA constructs a template for replicating itself. The replication process of the virus isn’t completely understood. The viral RNA is cloned over and over to create new viruses.

Stage 6

The virus’s coating is made of different protein-based coverings. These are developed by ribosomes, or cell protein builders, during this stage and released.

Stage 7

Protein units called capsomeres come together and form new particles around the viral RNA. These make a covering shaped like a sphere, known as a capsid. The capsid protects the virus’s genetic material.

Stage 8

In the final stage, the new virus creates a bud with itself inside. A protective coating surrounds the bud. It’s released through the barrier of your liver cell, ready to infect another of your liver cells. This process continues until the infected liver cell dies.

RNA viruses evolve faster than other organisms. This results in many mutations that won’t survive. But the sheer number of offspring ensures that these mutations don’t threaten the survival of the virus.

Your body’s immune system works hard to destroy HCV. For some, the virus will clear up on its own. However, most won’t discover they have the virus until the disease has become chronic. About 75 to 85 percent of people infected with HCV go on to develop chronic infection.

Recent advances in HCV treatment have made it possible for people with chronic hepatitis C to clear the virus. These advances have made treatment more effective, as well as reducing side effects and shortening the duration of therapy.

If you have hepatitis C, talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. After determining the correct course of medication, they can help you navigate the different programs and policies available to help cover the cost of treatment.

Keep reading: What you should know about hepatitis C treatment costs »