What is Cirrhosis?
Cirrhosis is a late stage of scarring (fibrosis) of the liver caused by many forms of liver diseases and conditions, such as hepatitis and chronic alcohol abuse. The liver carries out several necessary functions, including detoxifying harmful substances in your body, cleaning your blood and making vital nutrients.
Cirrhosis occurs in response to damage to your liver. The liver damage done by cirrhosis can’t be undone. But if liver cirrhosis is diagnosed early and the cause is treated, further damage can be limited. As cirrhosis progresses, more and more scar tissue forms, making it difficult for the liver to function (decompensated cirrhosis). Advanced cirrhosis is life-threatening.
What Causes Cirrhosis of the Liver?
Hepatitis C, fatty liver, and alcohol abuse are the most common causes of cirrhosis of the liver in the U.S., but anything that damages the liver can cause cirrhosis, including:
- Fatty liver associated with obesity and diabetes
- Chronic viral infections of the liver (hepatitis types B, C, and D; Hepatitis D is extremely rare)
- Blockage of the bile duct, which carries bile formed in the liver to the intestines, where it helps in the digestion of fats; in babies, this can be caused by biliary atresia in which bile ducts are absent or damaged, causing bile to back up in the liver. In adults, bile ducts may become inflamed, blocked, or scarred, due to another liver disease called primary biliary cirrhosis.
- Repeated bouts of heart failure with fluid backing up into the liver
Certain inherited diseases such as:
- Cystic fibrosis
- Glycogen storage diseases, in which the body is unable to process glycogen, a form of sugar that is converted to glucose and serves as a source of energy for the body
- Alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency, an absence of a specific enzyme in the liver
- Diseases caused by abnormal liver function, such as hemochromatosis, a condition in which excessive iron is absorbed and deposited into the liver and other organs, and Wilson’s disease, caused by the abnormal storage of copper in the liver
Although less likely, other causes of cirrhosis include reactions to prescription drugs, prolonged exposure to environmental toxins, or parasitic infections.
Cirrhosis Signs and symptoms
There are usually few symptoms in the early stages of cirrhosis. However, as your liver loses its ability to function properly, you’re likely to experience a loss of appetite, nausea and itchy skin.
In the later stages, symptoms can include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes), vomiting blood, dark, tarry-looking stools and a build-up of fluid in the legs (oedema) and abdomen (ascites).
Some things you can do to help take care of your liver disease are:
- Drink less alcohol.
- Eat a healthy diet that is low in salt
- Get vaccinated for diseases such as influenza, hepatitis A and hepatitis B, and pneumococcal pneumonia
- Talk to your doctor about all medicines you take, including herbs and supplements and over-the-counter medicines
Medicines from your Doctor
- “Water pills” (diuretics) to get rid of fluid build-up
- Vitamin K or blood products to prevent excess bleeding
- Medicines for mental confusion
- Antibiotics for infections
- Endoscopic treatments for enlarged veins in the throat (bleeding varicies)
- Removal of fluid from the abdomen (paracentesis)
- Placement of a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS) to repair blood flow in the liver
When cirrhosis progresses to end-stage liver disease, a liver transplant may be needed.