The natural history of hepatitis C is complex and still poorly known. Hepatitis C virus (HCV) replication can be detected very soon after exposure and, at least in the transfusional setting, it persists indefinitely in up to 90% of the cases. While liver damage during the acute phase of hepatitis is almost invariably mild (fulminant cases are exceptions), chronic sequelae of HCV infection may be severe in the long run. Chronic hepatitis C, in fact, is a long-lasting indolent process which leads to cirrhosis in approximately 20% of all infected patients. Hepatocellular carcinoma is a well-recognized complication of old infections, as are a number of extrahepatic manifestations, including type II cryoglobulinaemia. The determinants of the severity of the liver disease are still unclear. However, the risk of cirrhosis seems to be greater for patients with old infections, those infected with the genotype 1b and those with associated conditions. The latter are a heterogeneous and increasing group of 'problem' patients, including patients who are co-infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV1), or who are being treated with cytotoxic or immunomodulating drugs. Data suggest that the natural history of hepatitis C is altered in patients with associated conditions, and this might have an impact on strategies of patient management and treatment.
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