What Is Cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis develops when scar tissue replaces normal, healthy tissue in your liver. It happens after the healthy cells are damaged over a long period of time, usually many years.

The scar tissue makes the liver lumpy and hard, and after a while, the organ will start to fail. The scar tissue makes it tough for blood to get through a large vein (the portal vein) that goes into the liver.

When blood backs up into the portal vein, it can get into your spleen and cause trouble in that organ, too.

There’s no cure for cirrhosis except a liver transplant, but you and your doctor can slow cirrhosis down by treating whatever is causing it.

What Causes Cirrhosis?

This disease always develops as a result of other liver conditions or diseases you already have. They include:

Alcohol-related liver disease. Drinking too much alcohol for years on end raises your risk of cirrhosis. It causes fat and inflammation in the liver. The amount of alcohol it takes to hurt the liver is different for everyone. But in general, women shouldn’t have more than one drink a day. Men shouldn’t have more than two.

Viral hepatitis. Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. It can be caused by heavy alcohol use, some medications and certain medical conditions. Most often, a virus causes it. Hepatitis C is the most common hepatitis in the United States, followed by hepatitis B. You can get either of these by coming into contact with infected blood. This might happen if you:

  • Stick yourself with a needle by accident
  • Share needles to inject drugs
  • Had a blood transfusion in the past (before the mid-1980s for Hep B, before 1992 for Hep C)
  • Have sex with someone who has it

Hepatitis D can also cause cirrhosis. But you can only get this type of hepatitis if you already have hepatitis B.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Fat can build up in your liver even if you don’t drink alcohol. The following things can cause extra fat in your liver:

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Autoimmune hepatitis. In some people, the body’s defenses (immune system) go haywire and attack the liver. Doctors think this is probably genetic, meaning it runs in families. Autoimmune hepatitis is more common in women than men.

Bile duct disease or damage. Bile ducts are small tubes that carry bile (a fluid that helps with digestion) from your liver to your small intestine. If the ducts get blocked because of disease or injury, the bile backs up into the liver and can cause cirrhosis.

Gallstones and cystic fibrosis are two conditions that can lead to bile duct damage.

Medications. Some drugs can cause cirrhosis if they’re taken for a very long time.

Stages of Cirrhosis

There are two main stages -- compensated and decompensated. In compensated cirrhosis, you won’t have any symptoms. There are still enough healthy liver cells to meet your body’s needs. They compensate, or make up for, the damaged cells and scarred tissue.

If you don’t get treatment for the cause of your cirrhosis, it’ll get worse and over time, the healthy liver cells won’t be able to keep up. Nor will your liver be able to get rid of toxic substances in your body like ammonia. Decompensated cirrhosis causes symptoms. It can lead to problems like these:

  • You bleed from large blood vessels in your esophagus (bleeding varices).
  • Fluid builds up in your belly (ascites, pronounced “ah-SIGH-tees”).
  • Toxins build up in your blood that can cause confusion (encephalopathy).
  • Your eyes and skin are yellow (jaundice).
  • You get gallstones.
  • You bruise and bleed easily.

Here are some ways to lower your chances for having these problems :

  • Stick to your treatments.
  • Don’t drink alcohol or use street drugs.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Keep a healthy weight.
  • Eat a low-fat diet.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on January 25, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Liver Foundation: “Cirrhosis.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Viral Hepatitis.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Cirrhosis.”

CDC: “What is Viral Hepatitis?”

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Hepatitis D.”

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