The hepatitis C virus is constantly multiplying, or making copies of itself. This is called viral replication [reh-plih-CAY-shuhn], or growth. Hepatitis C can make copies very fast. It is estimated that, every day, nearly one trillion replications of the hepatitis C virus can be made in a single person.
Think of the hepatitis C virus as an army that invades with a certain number of soldiers. It then brings in many more soldiers. The virus army continues to increase in number, enabling it to overwhelm your body's natural defenses over time. The amount of virus in the body is called viral load, which can be measured by a simple blood test. Knowing your viral load is very helpful for your doctor when planning treatment.
Your viral load can be measured in many different ways. Viral load can be measured in international units per milliliter of blood, or IU/mL. Viral load results can also be measured in copies per mL of blood, or copies/mL. You can convert IU to copies/mL by multiplying the number by 2.7.
The hepatitis C virus gets inside the cells of the liver. There it continues to multiply. The virus then goes to war with the liver cells. When the liver tries to fight off the invading virus army, it causes the liver to become inflamed and to swell. This is called inflammation [in-fluh-MAY-shuhn]. Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver.
As time goes by, hepatitis can cause liver scarring, which is called fibrosis [fy-BROH-sis] It can also cause more widespread scarring, which is called cirrhosis [sur-ROH-sis]. Scarring of the liver can lead to liver cancer and other health problems. If the liver is so badly scarred that it cannot work the way it should, a liver transplant may be needed.
Liver damage cannot be predicted by counting how much virus is in the body. A large amount of virus can hurt the liver, but so can a very small amount of the virus. And while damage caused by the hepatitis C virus may not be noticeable for many years, in most cases, the virus will cause some liver damage. That’s why it is very important for doctors to continue monitoring the liver health of people with hepatitis C.
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