When you are infected with a virus, a battle begins between your body's natural defenses against infections, or immune system, and the virus. When the hepatitis C virus leaves your blood and enters the liver cells it begins making as many copies of itself as possible. Your immune system tries to get rid of the virus by sending in special cells and releasing several natural chemicals. This response to the infection causes the cells in the area to become damaged and swell, this is called "inflammation".
Your body's immune system is very good at destroying some types of viruses, but others can be a lot harder to remove. Chronic hepatitis C affects the liver and how well it works.
In early hepatitis, the liver first becomes inflamed or swollen. The virus is damaging your liver cells which alerts your immune system to send in several of it's defenses. While the liver tries to repair itself, scar tissue is forming at the same time. This is called fibrosis. When the scarring gets bad, it can interfere with or even prevent blood from flowing freely through the liver, this makes it harder for the liver to do its job. As the hepatitis continues, more scars are formed and can begin to join together. When many of these scars form together, it's called cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis means that large areas of the liver have become very badly scarred, usually permanently. This causes the liver to shrink and harden. As the liver continues to be damaged and scarred, it may stop performing one or more of its normal functions.
For example, it may stop cleaning harmful wastes, toxins, and drugs from the blood. It may also stop making enough of the proteins your body needs to function properly. This is called "liver failure".
When the liver becomes badly damaged with cirrhosis and liver failure occurs, several problems can begin to happen. Fluid can build up in the stomach area and legs, the intestines may start to bleed, and with time, mental function can also slow down.
It's possible that before liver failure develops, a person with hepatitis C may not even know that their liver is being damaged. They may not have any symptoms or notice any changes to their body. However, once cirrhosis develops, the person is at risk for many life-threatening complications of hepatitis C liver disease.