Cirrhosis (sir-RO-sis) damages liver cells and replaces them with scar tissue that prevents the normal flow of blood through the liver and interferes with many of the liver's vital functions.
Many people believe that only heavy drinkers can get cirrhosis of the liver. Although it is true that the number one cause of cirrhosis in the United States is drinking alcohol, a person need not be a heavy drinker to get the disease. The chance of developing cirrhosis depends on the amount and frequency that individuals drink, as well as their weight and height, and their body's ability to metabolize, or process, alcoholic products in the bloodstream.
Cirrhosis is a chronic * liver disease in which normal liver cells are damaged and replaced by scar tissue. The disease prevents the normal flow of blood through the liver and prevents the liver from functioning properly. It is most often (but not always) the result of severe liver damage or chronic liver disease. Although some liver tissue can regenerate or repair itself when injured, the extent to which damaged cells are able to regenerate varies with each person. If cirrhosis is not treated, it can eventually lead to liver failure, or death.
The liver is a large, complex organ, about the size of a football and weighing around three pounds. It is located beneath the ribs in the upper right side of the abdomen * and is connected to the small intestine by the bile duct, which transports bile * from the liver to the intestines. A healthy liver is soft and smooth.
Cirrhosis is not contagious; it cannot be passed on from one person to another. Cirrhosis has many possible causes:
In the early stages, cirrhosis is considered a silent disease because people show few symptoms. Over time, however, people with cirrhosis begin to experience fatigue, weakness, exhaustion, and loss of appetite. Weight loss and nausea are common. As cirrhosis worsens, the liver manufactures fewer of the proteins that the body needs and other symptoms develop:
Doctors always begin with a medical history and a physical exam. Evidence of an enlarged or swollen liver; evidence of edema or ascites; and signs of mental confusion caused by the buildup of toxic substances in the brain all can lead a doctor toward a diagnosis of cirrhosis.
The doctor also may order CT scans * or ultrasound * scans of the liver to see if it is scarred. A needle biopsy, in which a needle is put through the skin to take a sample of tissue from the liver, can be useful in diagnosing cirrhosis. The liver also can be inspected through a laparoscope (LAP-aro-skope), a viewing device inserted through a tiny incision in the abdomen. The presence of telangiectasia (tel-an-je-ek-TAY-ze-a), which are tiny, expanded, spidery blood vessels in the skin, particularly in the face and upper chest, may indicate cirrhosis.
Treatment depends on the type and stage of the cirrhosis. The goal is to stop the progress of the disease while trying to reverse damage to the liver. If the cirrhosis is caused by alcohol, stopping drinking is the first step.
As of 2015, there was no one treatment to cure cirrhosis. Symptoms such as itching can be treated with medications. Diuretics (drugs that help remove excess salt and water from the body) also may be prescribed to treat edema or ascites. In severe cases of liver failure, when the liver cells have completely stopped working, a liver transplant may be the only solution.
Adults who eat a nutritious diet and limit their alcohol consumption can help prevent destruction of healthy liver cells. Other tips that can help prevent the disease include:
People with cirrhosis can live for many years. Even when complications develop, they usually can be treated. Many people with cirrhosis have undergone successful liver transplantation and gone on to live healthy lives.
People recovering from cirrhosis are advised not to drink alcohol. Poor nutrition, particularly associated with alcohol or drug abuse, is believed to play a role in how cirrhosis develops, although physicians in 2015 did not understand the mechanisms. In the meanwhile, eating a healthful, well-balanced diet is recommended.
See also Alcoholism • Cystic Fibrosis • Gallstones • Heart Disease: Overview • Hepatitis • Jaundice
VA Hepatitis C Resource Centers. “Cirrhosis: A Patient's Guide.” http://www.hepatitis.va.gov/pdf/cirrhosis_handbook.pdf (accessed November 28, 2015).
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Cirrhosis.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (accessed November 28, 2015).
American Gastroenterological Association. 4930 Del Ray Ave., Bethesda, MD 20814. Telephone: 301-654-2055. Website: http://www.gastro.org/ (accessed November 28, 2015).
American Liver Foundation. 75 Maiden Ln., Suite 603, New York, NY 10038. Telephone: 212-668-1000. Website: http://www.liverfoundation.org (accessed November 28, 2015).
National Digestive Disease. 2 Information Way, Bethesda, MD 208923570. Toll-free: 800-891-5389. Website: http://www.niddk.nih.gov (accessed November 28, 2015).
* chronic (KRAH-nik) lasting a long time or recurring frequently.
* abdomen (AB-do-men), commonly called the belly, is the portion of the body between the thorax (THΟR-aks) and the pelvis.
* bile a greenish-brown fluid manufactured in the liver that is essential for digesting food. Bile is stored in the gallbladder, which contracts and discharges bile into the intestine to aid digestion of fats after a person eats.
* clotting is a process in which blood changes into a jellylike mass that stops the flow of blood.
* coma (KO-ma) is an unconscious state, like a very deep sleep. A person in a coma cannot be woken up, and cannot move, see, speak, or hear.
* CT scans, computed tomography (to-MOG-ra-fee) scans, or CAT (computerized axial tomography) scans, use computers to view structures inside the body.
* ultrasound also called a sonogram, is a diagnostic test in which sound waves passing through the body create images on a computer screen.