July 21, 2021

What to know about cirrhosis

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This type of chronic liver disease isn’t always caused by alcohol consumption. Know the signs and treatment options.

Cirrhosis is when scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue. This stops the liver from working normally. Cirrhosis is a long-term (chronic) liver disease. The damage to your liver builds up over time, usually over decades. 

The liver does many important things, including: 

  • Removing waste from the body, such as toxins and medicines. 
  • Making bile to help digest food.
  • Storing and controlling sugar that the body uses for energy.
  • Making nutrients for the body.

When you have cirrhosis, scar tissue slows the flow of blood through the liver. Over time, the liver can’t work the way it should, and blood pressure increases in the blood vessels around the liver.

In severe cases, the liver is damaged badly enough that it stops working; that is liver failure.

What causes cirrhosis?

Anything that causes inflammation in the liver can lead to cirrhosis over time. The most common causes of cirrhosis are:

  • Long-term alcohol abuse
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (this is caused by conditions such as obesity; high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure) 
  • Viruses that can affect the liver (for example, hepatitis B or hepatitis C)

Other less common causes include:

  • Autoimmune disorders, where the body’s infection-fighting system (immune system) attacks healthy tissue.
  • Conditions that block or damage the tubes (bile ducts) that carry bile from the liver to the intestine, such as primary biliary cholangitis or primary sclerosis cholangitis.
  • Certain medicines.
  • Repeated episodes of heart failure with blood buildup in the liver.
  • Some diseases passed from parent to child may also cause cirrhosis, such as the abnormal buildup of copper in Wilson’s disease; abnormal buildup of iron in hemochromatosis; and lung and liver disease in alpha-one-antitrypsin deficiency.

What are the signs of cirrhosis?

Your symptoms may vary depending on how severe your liver disease is. Mild cirrhosis may not cause symptoms at all.

Symptoms can include:

  • Fluid buildup in the belly (ascites)
  • Vomiting blood, often from bleeding in the blood vessels in the food pipe (esophagus)
  • Confusion as toxins build up in the blood
  • Itching
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Muscle loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Easy bruising
  • Spider-like veins in the skin
  • Low energy and weakness (fatigue)
  • Weight loss
  • Kidney failure

These symptoms may look like other health problems. Talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Learn more about liver transplants

To find out whether you are a candidate for a liver transplant, speak to a transplant coordinator at 615- 813-6430.

How is cirrhosis treated?

Cirrhosis gets worse over time. However, damage to your liver can sometimes reverse or improve if the cause of the problem is gone, such as getting treatment for a viral infection or by abstaining from alcohol.

The goal of treatment is to slow down the buildup of scar tissue and prevent or treat other health problems. Your healthcare provider may recommend:

  • Eating a healthy, low-salt diet
  • Avoiding alcohol and illegal drugs 
  • Managing any health problems that happen because of cirrhosis 

If you have metabolic syndrome, it’s important to lose weight and manage any underlying conditions such as diabetes. 

Talk with your healthcare provider before taking prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines or vitamins. 

Ask your healthcare provider about recommended vaccines. These include vaccines for viruses that can cause liver disease. 

If you have severe cirrhosis, treatment can’t always control all symptoms. A liver transplant may be needed. Other treatments may be specific to your cause of cirrhosis, such as controlling excessive iron or copper levels or using immune-suppressing medicines. Talk to your healthcare provider or your transplant coordinator with any questions.

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The Vanderbilt Transplant Center‘s liver transplant specialists offer complete care for liver and bile duct diseases. The center’s surgeons have the expertise for dual-organ operations, including liver-heart and liver-kidney transplants, to help people with even the most complicated medical challenges. For more information, call 615-813-6430.

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