for Veterans and the Public
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What does high/low viral load mean?
Viral load is the amount of virus present in the bloodstream. It is expressed as the amount of viral genetic material (RNA) per milliliter of blood. The amount of virus does not predict how severe the liver disease is or will become. The level of the viral load does not tell us anything about the risk of liver damage or how sick someone is. In hepatitis C, it matters if virus is present (at any level) or absent. Some treatment regimens can be shortened if the patient has a low viral load to start with, but most often, treatment regimens are the same for people with high hepatitis C viral loads or low viral loads.
The RNA test is essential for making the diagnosis of hepatitis C infection--having a positive RNA test is the definition of having infection. After the diagnosis is made, the RNA level (the viral load) does not need to be checked over and over unless it is checked during the time that the patient is undergoing treatment. During treatment, regular RNA tests are done to follow the dropping virus level until it reaches an undetectable state. But before treatment and after treatment, repeated RNA testing is not necessary.