Hepatitis C is an infection that can cause inflammation or swelling of the liver.

The liver is one of the largest organs. It’s located in the upper right portion of the abdomen below the lungs.

Some of the functions of your liver are:

  • helping your body absorb nutrients from food
  • storing vitamins and nutrients
  • making and storing sugar for energy use
  • removing harmful chemicals from your body

Most hepatitis C complications stem from the liver, so keeping your liver healthy is especially important if you have hepatitis C.

Some people with chronic hepatitis C experience liver damage. Liver damage from hepatitis C doesn’t happen immediately. It may occur over years or even decades. Many people don’t know they have hepatitis C until they start to show symptoms of liver damage.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for every 100 people infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), 75 to 85 people will develop chronic hepatitis C. Of those:

  • 60 to 70 people will develop chronic liver disease
  • 5 to 20 people will develop cirrhosis over a period of 20 to 30 years
  • 1 to 5 people will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer

Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver with loss of function. Over time, hard scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue in a process called fibrosis. The scar tissue blocks blood flow through the liver. A liver with too much scar tissue won’t work properly. If cirrhosis isn’t treated, it can lead to liver failure.

Cirrhosis can be caused by:

  • heavy alcohol use
  • chronic hepatitis C
  • nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
  • some drugs, medications, or harmful chemicals
  • some inherited diseases

It can take many years for liver damage from hepatitis C to lead to cirrhosis. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, almost 20 percent of those with chronic hepatitis C will go on to develop cirrhosis.

But once cirrhosis develops, the chance of developing a life-threatening complication over the next 5 to 10 years is about 50 percent.

People with cirrhosis may have no symptoms for many years. Symptoms of cirrhosis may include:

While nothing can make the scar tissue go away, there are things you can do to keep cirrhosis from worsening:

  • Take medications to treat HCV infection.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol.
  • Don’t eat raw shellfish. Raw oysters and other shellfish can have bacteria that cause serious infections in people with cirrhosis.
  • Talk with your doctor before taking any medications, including over-the-counter drugs and herbal supplements. Cirrhosis may make your liver sensitive to certain medicines and supplements.

Liver failure happens when your liver stops working properly. Liver damage that progresses over years, or even decades, is called chronic liver failure or end-stage liver disease.

Cirrhosis caused by hepatitis C is the most common reason for liver transplants in the United States, according to the CDC.

Symptoms of liver failure include:

During a liver transplant, doctors will remove your liver and replace it with a healthy one from a donor.

A small number of people with cirrhosis develop liver cancer.

Since hepatitis C increases your risk for liver cancer, your doctor may recommend an ultrasound test of your liver every 6 to 12 months. These tests will show your doctor if any tumors are starting to form. Liver cancer is more treatable the earlier it’s found.

Talk with your doctor if you notice any liver complications related to hepatitis C. Being aware of your symptoms and how you’re feeling is important for your treatment and your health.