What Does the Hepatitis C Virus Look Like?

Hepatitis C virus, illustration

Do you know what the hepatitis C virus looks like? First, let's talk about what hepatitis is. Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, the largest organ in the body. The liver helps digest food, store energy, and remove poisons.

Hepatitis C, an inflammation of the liver, is caused by the contagious hepatitis C virus (HCV). It usually spreads through contact with infected blood.

It can also spread through sex with an infected person and from mother to baby during childbirth.

Hepatitis C can be a mild illness lasting just a few weeks, or more serious, lasting a lifetime.

Acute Hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.

Chronic Hepatitis C virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the hepatitis C virus remains in a person’s body. Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.

How Does Hepatitis C Appear?

The hepatitis C virus is so small (30 to 60 nanometers in diameter) that millions of them could fit onto the head of a pin. Many viruses, and especially hepatitis C viruses, cannot be seen using a light microscope because they are smaller than the wavelength of visible light.

However, scientists have other ways of knowing what the hepatitis C virus probably looks like.

If you could enlarge a hepatitis C virion enough to really see it well, it would appear spherical and covered with spikes, which are called E proteins. There are two types of E proteins (E1 and E2), named so because they protrude through the virus's envelope, or the outer covering.

Beneath this envelope is the core of the virus, which contains its genetic material, RNA (ribonucleic acid). Because the virus has an RNA-based genome (as compared to the more stable DNA-based genome), it is more prone to mutation. This mutation in the virus's genetic code directly contributes to the different types of hepatitis C virus that exist, known as genotypes and subspecies. There are at least six major hepatitis C genotypes and many more subspecies.

The hepatitis C virus, like all viruses, cannot reproduce by itself. It must first infect a living cell, such as the hepatocyte, and take over the cell's "machinery." Using the genetic information in the cell, the hepatitis C virus is able to make copies of itself which can go on to cause further infection.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Atlanta (GA). Hepatitis C.

MedlinePlus [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US); Hepatitis C.