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Viral Hepatitis and Liver Disease

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Liver Basics Glossary

for Veterans and the Public

Glossary - Liver Basics

Click on an underlined letter to find the terms that start with that letter.


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS): The illness caused by HIV. It affects your immunity by making you more susceptible to infections and to certain rare cancers. It is mostly transmitted by exposure to contaminated blood and semen.

Alanine aminotransferase (ALT): An enzyme released from liver cells. A blood test that reveals ALT levels above normal may indicate liver damage. ALT levels and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) levels (see below) rise during periods of liver damage, when these enzymes leak out of broken cells. The actual numbers are not as important as how much they increase over time. Many patients with hepatitis C have raised ALT and AST levels, and many patients have normal ALT and AST levels. For those with elevations, one goal of treatment is to get the levels back to normal. ALT levels do not actually tell you how your liver is functioning.

Albumin (Alb): is a protein made by the liver to keep body fluids in balance. Low levels can indicate poor health and nutrition or a failing liver.

Alkaline phosphatase (AlkPhos): is an enzyme made in the liver's bile ducts and also in bone, kidneys, and intestines. High levels can indicate liver or bone disease.

Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP): is a protein that can be elevated in liver cancer.

Anemia: is a shortage of red blood cells that can cause fatigue and other symptoms.

Antibodies: are proteins produced by the body as a response to infections. The presence in the blood of an antibody to hepatitis C means that the person was previously infected with hepatitis C. Hepatitis C antibodies do not prevent hepatitis C infection or prevent hepatitis C effects on the liver.

Ascites: Abnormal fluid within the abdomen, often caused by cirrhosis.

Aspartate aminotransferase (AST): An enzyme released from liver and muscle. A blood test that reveals AST levels above normal may indicate liver damage.

Assay: A test or analysis.


Biochemical response (BR): Refers to the normalization of ALT levels in response to HCV therapy.

Bilirubin: A bile pigment that is also created by the breakdown of heme pigments. Usually collected by the liver cells, its presence in blood or urine is often a sign of liver damage. At very high levels, your skin or eyes can actually turn yellow (jaundice).

Blood-borne substances: Those substances that are present in the blood and are carried by it throughout the body. Blood-borne substances, such as viruses, can be passed on to others through blood transfusions, needle sharing, and even sharing a toothbrush if both people have bleeding gums.


Carrier: A person who has been infected with an organism and is capable of infecting and/or causing disease in others, but who is not sick.

Chronic infection: An infection that persists indefinitely.

Cirrhosis of the liver: The result of long-standing inflammation and damage in the liver, such as may be caused by a hepatitis C infection or alcohol. It is characterized by excess formation of scar tissue, also called fibrosis, and results in the loss of liver cells and increased resistance of blood flow.

Concomitant event: An event, such as a medical condition, that occurs at the same time as another.


DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid): A component in cells of all living matter that carries hereditary genetic information which determines characteristics of an organism (such as eye color).


Edema: The puffiness that occurs from abnormal amounts of fluid in the spaces between cells in the body, especially just below the skin.

Encephalopathy: A variety of brain function abnormalities experienced by some patients with advanced liver disease. These most commonly include confusion, disorientation, and insomnia, and may progress to coma.

End of treatment response (ETR): Measures the body's response to medications at the end of treatment.

Enzymes: Naturally occurring chemical substances in the human body that help a chemical reaction take place. The liver enzymes are AST and ALT. Abnormal enzyme levels can indicate presence of disease.

Epidemiology: Investigation of the causes of, and ways to control, diseases.


False-positive: A test result that mistakenly gives a positive reading.

Fibrosis: is the first stage of scar formation in the liver. Scar tissue is an attempt to contain areas of the liver that have been damaged by alcohol, hepatitis C, or other factors.


Genotype: A pattern of genetic information that is unique to a group of organisms or viruses. There are six or more genotypes of hepatitis C.


Hepatic: Related to the liver.

Hepatitis: Inflammation (swelling) of the liver.

HCV RNA (hepatitis C virus ribonucleic acid): Fragments of the replicating hepatitis C virus (HCV). These can be detected with tests to measure the level of hepatitis C virus present in the bloodstream. Sometimes referred to as the "viral load."

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC): Cancer stemming from the liver cells. Also called hepatoma.


Intravenous drug use (IDU or IVDU): Injecting drugs, usually illicit drugs such as heroin, into veins for recreational purposes. IDU is the most common cause of hepatitis C infection.


Jaundice: A condition characterized by yellowness of the skin and eyes. Jaundice is a symptom of many disorders, including: obstruction of bile passageways by a gallstone; disease of the liver due to viral infection, alcoholism, or poisons; or breakdown of red blood cells.


Neutropenia: means a decreased number of neutrophils. Neutrophils are a type of white blood cells that fights infections in the body. Neutropenia can increase risk of infections.


Portal hypertension: is high blood pressure in and around the liver. It is often caused by cirrhosis, and it can result in variceal bleeding and ascites.

Prothrombin time (PT): is a test that measures how long your blood takes to clot. Prothrombin helps the blood to clot, so PT increases if the liver is not making enough of it.


Recreational drugs: Illegal drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin that are used by people for non-medical purposes.

Remission: Partial or complete disappearance--or a lessening of the severity--of symptoms of a disease. Remission may happen on its own or occur as a result of a medical treatment.

Risk factors: Certain behaviors (such as intravenous drug use or transfusions) linked to the development of an infection such as hepatitis.

RNA (ribonucleic acid): Molecules, found in all cells, that translate DNA genetic information into proteins.


Serology: A branch of medical testing that focuses on serum, particularly immune factors in serum.

Seronegative: When the suspected substance being searched for, such as the antibody to hepatitis C virus, does not show up in a blood test.

Seropositive: When the suspected substance being searched for, such as the antibody to hepatitis C virus, does show up in a blood test.

Seroprevalence: The frequency of a seropositive substance in a group of people.

STD (sexually transmitted disease): A communicable disease transmitted by sexual intercourse or genital contact.

Sustained response (SR): A response to therapy that continues over a long time period.

Sustained viral response (SVR): The goal of hepatitis C treatment. Refers to an undetectible viral load 12 weeks after the completion of hepatitis C treatment.


Thrombocytopenia: is a low level of platelets in the blood caused by cirrhosis and an enlarged spleen.

Transaminase: A term for alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aminotransferases (AST), the two transaminases.

Transmission: Passing an infection or disease from one person to another.

True-positive: A test result that accurately gives a positive reading.


Variceal bleeding: is bleeding from enlarged veins in the esophagus (called varices). Varices form as a result of high blood pressure in the liver. This occurs when a patient has end-stage liver disease (liver failure).

Viral load: The measurement of the amount of a given virus in the bloodstream. For example, in HCV, viral load is the number of HCV RNA international units per milliliter of blood.

Viremia: The presence of a given virus in the bloodstream.

Virologic Response (VR): Refers to patients' loss of detectable HCV RNA during or after medication therapy.


White blood cell count (WBC), hematocrit (HCT), and platelets (PLT): are all components of the blood. A low WBC count is called leukopenia. A low HCT count is called anemia and represents a lack of red blood cells. A low platelet count is called thrombocytopenia. These abnormalities can develop as complications of liver disease. A complete blood count (CBC) tests all of these types of blood cells.