Chronic alcoholics have a high prevalence of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. The present study was carried out to examine the association between HCV infection and alcohol abuse, and the influence of these factors on the severity of liver disease. Patients with history of heavy alcohol abuse (> or = 80 g of ethanol per day for > or = 5 years) were analyzed with respect to the amount of alcohol use, clinical evidence of liver disease, and laboratory tests. One hundred ninety-nine patients, 137 HCV positive and 62 HCV negative were included in the study. HCV-infected subjects had liver disease for a longer duration (P < 0.0001) and had higher incidence of symptoms of hepatic decompensation in the past compared to uninfected alcoholics. Several differences were noted between the two groups at the time of presentation to the hospital. Alcoholics with HCV infection had lower daily alcohol consumption (P < 0.001), were abstinent for a longer duration (P < 0.02) and had lower lifetime use of ethanol (P < 0.005) compared to HCV-negative subjects. Assessment of liver tests showed greater derangement in uninfected alcoholics compared to HCV-positive subjects. The present study shows that HCV-infected chronic alcoholics have lower alcohol consumption and, perhaps as a consequence, have less severe liver disease compared to HCV-negative individuals. These findings suggest that in chronic alcoholics, despite the presence of HCV infection, the severity of liver damage is related to the amount of alcohol consumption.