Inflammatory processes in organs frequently lead to hyperplasia of regional lymph nodes. In the present study, we investigated whether lymph node enlargement within the hepatoduodenal ligament may reflect the inflammatory activity within the liver of patients chronically infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). In 114 patients with chronic hepatitis C and 49 healthy controls, the total lymph node volume within the hepatoduodenal ligament was prospectively investigated by ultrasound. In patients with chronic hepatitis C, a liver biopsy was taken at the same occasion, and specimens were semiquantitatively evaluated by the histological activity index (HAI). Hepatitis C viremia was assessed by quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Genotyping was performed by a reverse hybridization assay. In 104 of 114 patients (91.2%) and in 45 of 49 healthy controls (91.8%), adequate visualization of the region of the hepatoduodenal ligament was achieved by ultrasound. Lymph nodes were detected in all patients with chronic hepatitis C and in 33 of 45 controls. The mean perihepatic lymph node volume in healthy controls (2.2 +/- 1.8 mL) was lower than in HCV-infected patients with mild to moderate inflammatory activity, severe inflammatory activity, and patients with cirrhosis (5.8 +/- 2.2 mL, 18.1 +/- 10.4 mL, and 22.8 +/- 18.8 mL, respectively). In patients with HCV-RNA levels of less than 10(6) copies/mL, the total lymph node volume was 5.8 +/- 1.6 mL and was significantly increased in patients with higher viremia (20.3 +/- 13.8 mL; P < 10(-6)). No correlation was found between the total lymph node volume within the hepatoduodenal ligament, HCV genotypes, and liver function test results. In conclusion, enlargement of perihepatic lymph nodes in patients with chronic hepatitis C is predictive for the presence of severe inflammatory activity. The mechanism of portal lymphadenopathy in patients with chronic hepatitis is unknown but appears to be related to viral replication within the liver and the immune-mediated inflammatory response of the host.