Hepatitis C is a bloodborne virus that causes inflammation of the liver. While chronic hepatitis C affects up to 3.9 million people in the United States, there are still scores of others who are undiagnosed and aren’t seeking treatment.

The problem is that hepatitis C is known as a silent virus, and anywhere between 70 to 80 percent of people live for many years without symptoms. But there are serious long-term effects of untreated hepatitis C that you should be aware of.

The area of the body most affected by hepatitis C is the liver. Cirrhosis is a chronic liver disease that results when scar tissue begins taking over healthy tissue inside the liver itself. This scarring slows blood flow and stops the liver from being able to process nutrients and toxins.

Cirrhosis can do a lot of unwanted damage to the liver without ever being detected, and it can cause conditions such as:

  • yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • chronic bruising and bleeding
  • gallstones
  • fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites)
  • painful swelling of legs and feet (edema)
  • enlargement of the spleen (splenomegaly)
  • an increase of blood pressure in the portal venous system of the body (portal hypertension)
  • poisoning of the brain through the inability to process ammonia in the liver (hepatic encephalopathy)
  • chronic weakening of bone density (bone disease)

For every 100 people who are diagnosed with hepatitis C, one to five will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer. In fact, many people with cirrhosis eventually develop liver cancer.

The link is so strong because when your liver begins producing cells to fight off cirrhosis, some of these new cells can mutate into cancer cells and cause tumors to develop. The problem is that often the cancer goes undetected until severe symptoms start to make themselves known.

Some symptoms to look out for include:

  • pain or lumps on the right side of the abdomen
  • pain in the back or right shoulder
  • feeling extremely full after barely eating
  • tea-colored urine
  • pale stools
  • enlargement of the breasts or testicles

Treatments for liver cancer range from a variety of options, including ablation (destroying the cancerous tissue), chemotherapy, or a liver transplant.

Out of 100 people who are diagnosed with hepatitis C, 60 to 70 will develop chronic liver disease. If left untreated, this will lead to complete liver failure. In the United States alone, about 19,000 people die every year because of end-stage liver disease related to hepatitis C.

The good news is that liver failure can be detected through a blood test, CT scan, or liver biopsy. But the only current treatment for total hepatitis C–related liver failure is a liver transplant.

Scientists are quickly working to develop new treatments for liver failure, such as:

  • Artificial liver support devices that can do the work a failing liver can no longer do. This helpful respite gives the liver time to regenerate itself and heal. One example is the extracorporeal liver support device (ELSD), which has seen success in trials.
  • Hepatocyte transplantation involves the transplantation of a small portion of the liver’s cells. This option leaves the liver intact, allowing cells to help it regenerate.
  • Xenotransplantation, which replaces the human liver with an animal liver or cells and tissues, can be used to speed up the process of receiving a human liver transplant.

Although hepatitis C involved lengthy treatments and painful injections in the past, treatments today are rapidly improving. Today’s drug therapies are not only effective, but also easier to take. If you think you may have hepatitis C or have been recently diagnosed, talk to your doctor so it can be treated early. Don’t let the virus choose your future.