What is cirrhosis?


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Know the basics

What is cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis is a condition when your liver is damaged and cannot function properly. This occurs when inflammation causes the liver tissue to become scarred, which partially blocks the blood flow within the liver.

The liver is the largest internal organ in your body. It is responsible for many important bodily functions. The main functions include:

  • Absorbing and storing essential nutrients from foods during digestion then delivering these nutrients to the rest of your body. These nutrients include proteins, sugars and fats.
  • Producing new proteins to make clotting factors and immune factors to help your body repair damaged tissues.
  • Making bile to break down fats in foods during digestion to help your body absorb fats, cholesterol and fat-soluble vitamins.
  • Filtering your blood to remove waste such as toxins, excess fats and cholesterol. This waste forms as your stools and then release from your body during a bowel movement.

Usually, your liver can recover and repair damaged tissue. When the damage is too severe over a prolonged time period, your liver tissue turns into scarred tissue, also called fibrosis. The scarring of the liver builds up slowly over time, which leads to cirrhosis. During the early-stage of cirrhosis, your liver may still function but towards the late-stage your liver can fail. It is important to get immediate medical attention to prevent liver failure.

How common is cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis is a common condition that is usually the end result of chronic liver disease. It estimated that 50 million people in the world are affected by chronic liver disease. Cirrhosis can affect both men and women, however, recent studies show more deaths caused by cirrhosis in men than in women.

Know the symptoms

What are the symptoms of cirrhosis?

The signs and symptoms of cirrhosis depends on the stage of illness. Many people who are in early-stage cirrhosis may not have any signs or symptoms. If symptoms do appear, you may experience the following:

  • Tiredness (fatigue);
  • Weakness;
  • Little or no appetite;
  • Nausea;
  • Weight loss;
  • Enlarged liver;
  • Red palms of hands.

During late-stage cirrhosis, you may have symptoms that include:

  • Yellowing of eyes and skin;
  • Brown or dark yellow urine;
  • Hair loss;
  • Changes in blood vessels in skin and around the belly button;
  • Breast growth in men;
  • Easy bruising and bleeding;
  • Diarrhea;
  • Mental confusion;
  • Swollen belly from fluid accumulation and swollen legs;
  • Large spleen;
  • Hemorrhoids;
  • Coma.

There may be some signs or symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult with your doctor for more information.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor if you have any of the signs and symptoms mentioned above. It is important to treat cirrhosis early to prevent further liver damage. If you detect cirrhosis early enough, you may be able to reverse liver damage by repairing liver tissue cells.

Know the causes

What causes cirrhosis?

There are many causes of cirrhosis. The common causes include the following:

  • Chronic hepatitis C. This is a chronic condition characterized as inflammation of the liver, caused by a viral infection. It is usually spread by infected blood through needle sharing or blood transfusions. Rarely, hepatitis C is spread by sexual contact or childbirth.
  • Alcoholic-related liver disease. This type of liver disease is caused by excess alcohol consumption. This means if you drink more than 2 to 3 drinks a day over the course of 10 to 12 years, you have a higher chance of getting alcoholic cirrhosis.
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Also known as non-alcoholic steatohepatits (NASH), occurs when there is excess about of fat in the liver that is not caused by alcohol. Some causes may include obesity, uncontrolled diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high triglycerides.
  • Chronic hepatitis B. Similar to hepatitis C, hepatitis B is caused by a viral infection, leading to inflammation of the liver, fibrosis and cirrhosis. Hepatitis B can be spread by infected blood through shared needles, blood transfusions, sexual contact and childbirth. Hepatitis B is a preventable disease, meaning that there are vaccines available to prevent you from getting infected.

There are less common causes that include: auto-immune hepatitis (occurs when your body attacks your liver cells), damage and blockage of the bile ducts, inherited liver diseases (Wilson’s Disease, Hemochromatosis) and other rare infections of the liver (hepatitis D).

Know the risk factors

What increases my risk for cirrhosis?

There are risk factors that can increase your chances for cirrhosis. These may include the following:

  • Excess amount of alcohol consumption over a prolonged period of time. This means if you consume more than two to four drinks every day for more than 10 years.
  • Having unprotected sex can increase your risk for being infected with hepatitis B and possibly hepatitis C.
  • Sharing needles or blood transfusions can increase your risk for hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
  • Inherited liver disease, such as Wilson’s disease or hemochromatosis, can increase your risk for cirrhosis.
  • Being overweight and obese can cause a fatty liver, leading to inflammation and cirrhosis.

You should discuss with your doctor about ways to manage your risk. By properly managing your risk you can prevent cirrhosis or prevent your condition from worsening.

Understand the diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is cirrhosis diagnosed?

The doctor will diagnose your cirrhosis by reviewing your current medical condition as well as performing multiple medical tests and procedures. These diagnostic tests may include:

  • Medical family history. Knowing if you have any family member with liver disease, will help your doctor provide a proper diagnosis.
  • Physical exam. Your doctor will need to examine your body, including your abdomen. It is important to feel if the liver is enlarged or if there are any harden areas.
  • Blood tests. Blood tests can show abnormal levels of liver enzymes, blood cells and platelets. There are three tests that measure the severity of liver damage. These include bilirubin test (measures the bile in the blood), creatinine test (measures the kidney function) and international normalized ratio test (measure the body’s ability to clot).
  • Imaging tests. These tests can detect complications of liver damage, such as ascites (abdominal swelling caused by fluid retention) and liver cancer.
  • Liver biopsy. This test evaluates the liver damage by taking a sample of your liver tissue and examining it under a microscope.

How is cirrhosis treated?

The treatment of cirrhosis depends on the cause as well as any complications that are present. You should first remove or treat what is causing the cirrhosis. This means to reduce your consumption of alcohol and any medications causing liver damage.

Treating hepatitis B and hepatitis C with anti-virals can help manage the inflammation in the liver, reducing liver damage cirrhosis. If the cause is blocked bile ducts, your doctor may prescribe a medication called ursodiol, nontoxic, to replace the bile acids that is usually produced in your liver.

You may also need to treat the complications associated with cirrhosis. Complications may include abdominal pain or itching, fluid retention in the stomach (ascites), high blood pressure in the portal veins in the abdominal area (portal hypertension), dilated blood vessels (varices), liver cancer, reduced bone density (osteoporosis), gallstones and loss of brain function caused by toxin buildup (hepatic encephalopathy).

Other treatment options include surgery, diverting of the blood vessels (portacaval shunt), and liver transplantation.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage cirrhosis?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with cirrhosis:

  • Stop drinking alcohol.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. You may need to limit protein because the liver may be unable to use it.
  • Change activities according to your symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if during treatment you vomit blood or have black stool (bowel movements), bright red blood in your stool, increase in fluid accumulation in your belly or feet, or fever.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: May 30, 2016 | Last Modified: January 4, 2017

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