Cirrhosis of the liver is a potentially deadly disease that gains momentum over time. It takes many years to develop cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver, and it can’t be reversed. By learning more about this disease, one can learn to treat it, manage it, or prevent it from ever occurring.
Definition & Facts
Cirrhosis is a late stage of scarring of the liver. It can be caused by various forms of liver disease, including conditions such as hepatitis, and from chronic alcohol abuse. Cirrhosis is a bodily response to liver damage. It actually replaces soft healthy tissue with hard tissue. This damage can’t be reversed, but it can be treated to prevent it from getting worse over time.
If cirrhosis is allowed to progress, more scar tissue forms and builds up making it difficult for the liver to function. If the scarring advances too far, it becomes life-threatening because the liver ceases to function. The liver is vital to human survival because it is the second largest organ in the body and carries out necessary functions such as detoxifying harmful substances in the body, cleansing blood, and producing vital nutrients that our bodies need in order to stay healthy.
Symptoms & Complaints
- Jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes and skin
- Easy bruising
- Easy bleeding
- Reduced appetite
- Weight loss
- Severely irritated, itchy skin
- Edema, or swelling in the legs
- Ascites, or fluid that causes swelling of the abdomen
- Hepatic encephalopathy or confusion, drowsiness, and slurred speech
- Spider veins
If the cirrhosis has been prevalent for a long period of time and the liver is failing, it can actually start to cause other complications of the body including:
- Portal hypertension
- Kidney failure
- Mental changes due to the body’s inability to filter toxins
- Low levels of oxygen in the blood
- Muscle loss
- Sensitivity to medicines
- Premature menopause
- Breast enlargement in men
Cirrhosis is caused by chronic, long-term liver diseases that damage the tissue of the liver. This takes place over many years or even decades. Each time the liver incurs injury, it works to repair itself. In the process, scar tissue forms each time. As the scar tissue continually builds up, the liver function worsens because the scar tissue blocks the flow of blood through the liver. This slows the body’s processing of nutrients, hormones, and naturally produced toxins. Eventually the liver shuts down and needs to be replaced or it will cause death.
There are many causes of cirrhosis, and the leading cause is alcoholism. Abusing alcohol through excessive drinking causes the liver to swell. Women are at higher risk than men. Each person’s body handles alcohol differently, so it is hard to name the exact amount of alcohol or years of abusing it that it takes to cause cirrhosis.
The second leading cause of cirrhosis is chronic hepatitis C. Hepatitis C also causes the liver to swell and develop cirrhosis. Approximately one fourth of the population living with hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis.
A third cause of cirrhosis is nonalcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH. It is not caused by alcohol consumption but by fat build up in the liver. People who develop this type of cirrhosis usually have poor nutritional habits, are obese, and have other health problems such as diabetes and high cholesterol. This type of cirrhosis is highly preventable.
A fourth cause is bile duct disease which can stop bile from flowing to the small intestine and instead back it up into the liver. This results in cirrhosis. There are also genetic disorders that cause cirrhosis and which may occur in combination. They include:
- Hemochromatosis – or iron buildup
- Wilson’s disease – or copper buildup in the liver
- Biliary atresia – or poorly formed bile ducts
- Cystic fibrosis
- Alagille syndrome- a digestive disorder
- Autoimmune hepatitis
- Glycogen storage disease
Diagnosis & Tests
Usually the symptoms of cirrhosis are what are used to diagnose it. When the symptoms begin, patients should schedule an appointment with their doctor who will conduct a physical examination. Your doctor can actually feel your liver. If the liver is enlarged and bumpy those are signs of cirrhosis. Doctors will also ask about the patient’s medical history to see if the patient has genetic diseases in their family that lead to cirrhosis.
There are also blood tests that can be done to detect the disease. Sometimes a liver biopsy may be needed to see how much of the liver has been damaged. During a biopsy, a small piece of liver tissue is removed to be studied in a lab. Because of technology, doctors can even see your liver through a laparoscope. This is a viewing device that is inserted through an incision in the abdomen.
Treatment & Therapy
Treatment for cirrhosis depends on what caused it and whether any complications are present. In the beginning stages of cirrhosis, the first goal of treatment is to slow the progress of tissue scarring in the liver and prevent complications for occurring. As cirrhosis progresses and begins to develop other complications, a person may need additional treatments and/or hospitalization to manage the onset complications.
Treatment can help to delay the progress of cirrhosis. In order to be treated, a person must stop drinking. Some medications may be necessary, such as steroids or antiviral drugs if the individual has hepatitis. If the cause of the cirrhosis is from a genetic factor, then treatment will vary depending on which autoimmune disease it is.
Prevention & Prophylaxis
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating healthfully and exercising
- Stop drinking/abusing alcohol
- Avoid raw shellfish
- Limit salt intake
- Talk to your doctor about hepatitis A vaccination and hepatitis B vaccination
- Tell to your doctor about vitamins and supplements you take
- Avoid high-risk and unprotected sexual activity