Cirrhosis is a chronic liver disease that causes degeneration of liver cells and decreased function of the liver.
What is going on in the body?
The liver filters out poisons, germs, bacteria, and wastes from the blood. It also produces proteins (for nutrition and clotting, for instance), vitamins, minerals, sugar, and immune agents back into the blood. The liver can, to some extent, repair its own diseased or damaged cells with new cells. Liver transplants are possible because of this ability.
In some cases of ongoing injury, scar tissue replaces some of the normal cells during the restoration process. The scar tissue may form nodules (lumps). These nodules cause the liver to become hard (cirrhotic). The scar tissue blocks the flow of blood through the veins and arteries.
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Cirrhosis can be caused by a number of diseases and conditions. It occurs in twice as many men as women. Most people with cirrhosis are between 40 and 60 years of age.
The most common causes of cirrhosis in developed nations include:
- alcoholic liver disease
- viral hepatitis B, which may be accompanied by hepatitis D
- viral hepatitis C, with or without alcoholic liver disease
- fatty liver disease, associated with obesity, diabetes, or abnormal lipids (cholesterol)
Other causes of cirrhosis include:
- autoimmune hepatitis
- drug-induced liver disease from methotrexate, alpha methyl dopa, amiodarone, and other medicines
- hemochromatosis, a common genetic disorder that causes excess accumulation of iron in the body
- inborn errors of metabolism, such as galactosemia or alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
- thalassemia, a group of hereditary blood disorders
- tricuspid regurgitation, a heart valve disorder
- various liver diseases
- Wilson's disease, a genetic disorder that allows copper to accumulate in the liver and other organs
- years of severe right-sided heart failure
What can be done to prevent the condition?
The most important ways to prevent cirrhosis are to avoid excessive drinking of alcohol and to avoid multiple sexual partnerships, unprofessional tattoos or piercings, and intravenous or nasal drugs.
Progression of cirrhosis caused by drinking can be avoided if the person stops drinking. Good diet and exercise are also helpful. Following safer sex guidelines can help protect against sexually transmitted hepatitis.
Vaccines against hepatitis A and B are available and are now recommended for all people.
How is the condition diagnosed?
Diagnosis of cirrhosis begins with a medical history and physical exam.
The healthcare provider may order tests, including:
- abdominal CT scan
- abdominal MRI
- blood tests, such as liver function tests and a complete blood count, or CBC
- radioisotope liver studies
- ultrasound scanning
The only way to definitively diagnosis the presence of cirrhosis is with a liver biopsy. This usually involves using a needle to removal of thin piece of liver tissue that is examined under a microscope.
Long Term Effects
What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Once cirrhosis sets in, it cannot be significantly reversed. Treatment may be able to stop or delay further damage. The severe long-term effects of cirrhosis are a result of high blood pressure in the veins leading to the liver and loss of adequate, healthy liver tissue.
- cognitive impairments that may progress to a coma
- gastrointestinal bleeding, such as bleeding esophageal varices
- in rare cases, liver cancer
- kidney failure, or chronic renal failure
- peptic ulcers
If cirrhosis is diagnosed early in a person abusing alcohol, the chance for recovery is excellent. However, the person must stop drinking alcohol permanently and follow medical advice. Problems are significant if cirrhosis progresses before it is discovered and treated.
A person who suffers from cirrhosis due to complications from viral hepatitis may regain a normal life after treatment with medications to eradicate the virus, or after a successful liver transplant. People who are suffering from chronic alcoholism may not be good candidates for a liver transplant because of the damage done to the rest of their body.
What are the risks to others?
Cirrhosis itself is not contagious. However, it may be caused by an infectious disease, such as hepatitis, which is contagious.
What are the treatments for the condition?
Specific treatments for cirrhosis depend upon what caused the liver disease and any known complications. The first step in treating alcoholic cirrhosis is to provide the encouragement and support systems needed for the person to avoid drinking. Next, the individual can be offered suggestions for improved diet for liver disease. Medicines, blood transfusions, and other treatments may be used to treat the disorder causing the cirrhosis.
Finally, liver transplantation has become a widely accepted form of treatment. There are very specific indications for liver transplantation. The major problem with liver transplants is the limited supply of donor organs.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects depend on the treatments used. All medicines have possible side effects. For example, antibiotics may cause allergic reactions or stomach upset. Surgery can be complicated by bleeding, infection, or an allergic reaction to the anesthetic.
The medicines that must be taken to prevent rejection after a liver transplant have many side effects. These include allergic reactions, stomach upset, and kidney damage. Because these medicines suppress the immune system, there is also an increased risk of infection.
What happens after treatment for the condition?
Cirrhosis is usually progressive. A person who has cirrhosis due to alcohol may stop the progression of the cirrhosis when drinking stops. However, the scar tissue will remain.
How is the condition monitored?
A person with cirrhosis should have frequent physical exams by the healthcare provider. This helps the provider to monitor the activity of the disorder and determine possible complications.
Frequent blood tests, including complete blood counts and liver function tests, may help monitor the disorder as well. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.
The Merck Manual of Medical Information, Home edition, 1997
Professional Guide to Diseases, Sixth Edition. Springhouse: Springhouse Corporation, 1998
Tierney, Lawrence, editor, "Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 39th edition", 2000