Hepatitis C infects your liver. This section gives an overview about how your liver works and the affect hepatitis C has on it.
What is your liver?
The liver is one of the most important organs in your body.
It is located under your ribs on your right hand side. It lies just below the lungs, under the diaphragm.
The liver is the largest solid organ in your body. It weighs around 1.8kg in men and 1.3kg in women. Your liver can hold around one pint (570ml) of blood at any time. The liver is divided into two main lobes. Both lobes are further subdivided into around 100,000 smaller lobes (lobules). All lobules perform the same functions.
Functions of the liver
The liver performs more than 500 important functions which help to keep you healthy.
Some of the functions of the liver include:
- Absorbing nutrients from food and converting them into energy
- Producing bile
- Storing vitamins, fat, sugars, and minerals
- Regulating blood clotting
- Producing proteins for blood plasma
- Resisting infections
- Producing hormones that regulate sexual desire and function
One of the most important functions of the liver is to clean and remove harmful substances from the blood.
Almost everything we eat, breathe in or put into our body has to be removed, or cleaned, by the liver. This includes toxins such as air pollution, cigarette smoke, alcohol and other drugs.
The liver has lots of ways of dealing with toxins, such as breaking them down into safer substances, eliminating them through bile or repackaging them into a safer form.
If the liver cannot figure out what to do with a toxin it simply stores it, often in fat tissue, to protect the rest of the body. This process can be damaging to the fabric of the liver.
How hepatitis C affects your liver
The liver performs many tasks to keep us healthy. Its important role in our overall health is why liver diseases, such as hepatitis C, can have such varied symptoms and progression.
The symptoms of hepatitis C experienced and the damage done to the liver vary from person to person. Some people will have few, if any, symptoms for many years. While for others the symptoms can have quite noticeable effects on their health.
If you are tested and treated for hepatitis C early, you are unlikely to cause too much lasting damage to your liver.
However, some people may not realise they were exposed to the virus and can go many years unaware that they have hepatitis C.
If left untreated, the damage hepatitis C causes to your liver can get worse and become life-threatening.
Find out more about the long-term damage that hepatitis C can cause to the liver below:
Cirrhosis is the advanced scarring (fibrosis) of the liver caused by long-term liver damage.
With cirrhosis, the scarring has advanced to the point where the structure of the liver has been changed. As a result, the liver’s smooth texture starts to become nodular or lumpy.
Around 20% of people with hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis after 20 years if the virus is left untreated.
There are two stages of cirrhosis:
- Compensated cirrhosis – when the liver is coping with the damage and continuing to carry out most of its functions
- Decompensated cirrhosis – when the liver is unable to cope and is no longer functioning normally
Most people with cirrhosis do not experience any symptoms at first.
As time goes on, you may experience:
- Tiredness and weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
- Tenderness in the liver area
- Red patches on your palms
- Spider nevi – small spider-like blood vessels on your skin found above waist level
As your liver loses its ability to function properly, you may also experience:
- Yellowing of the skin and the white of the eyes (jaundice)
- Bruising easily
- Loss of sex drive (libido)
- Vomiting blood
- Dark urine
- Sensitivity to alcohol and other drug use due to the reduced ability of the liver to detoxify them
There’s no cure for cirrhosis. However, lifestyle measures and receiving treatment for hepatitis C can help stop the condition getting worse.
Eventually, cirrhosis can cause life-threatening complications such as liver cancer and liver failure.
Having hepatitis-associated cirrhosis increases your risk of developing liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma).
As cirrhosis develops, healthy cells in the liver are replaced with scar tissue.
As the scar tissue grows, the liver attempts to heal itself by creating new cells. This increases the chances of new cells mutating and these mutations can be cancerous.
Around 1 in 20 people with hepatitis-associated cirrhosis will go on to develop liver cancer.
Liver cancer can be cured in some cases and treatment can also be used to help control symptoms and slow the spread of cancer.
Find out more about liver cancer on the Liver Cancer UK website.
In severe cases, cirrhosis can lead to liver failure. This is when the liver loses most or all of its functions and begins to shut down.
Around 1 in 20 people with hepatitis-associated cirrhosis will develop liver failure.
Remember: hepatitis C is curable and being cured from the virus will help to improve your liver health.
If you think you may have been exposed to hepatitis C, you should get tested as soon as possible.