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Cirrhosis of the Liver

The liver weighs about 3 pounds and is the largest solid organ in the body. It performs many important functions, such as:

  • Manufacturing blood proteins that aid in clotting, oxygen transport, and immune system function
  • Storing excess nutrients and returning some of the nutrients to the bloodstream
  • Manufacturing bile, a substance needed to help digest food
  • Helping the body store sugar (glucose) in the form of glycogen
  • Ridding the body of harmful substances in the bloodstream, including drugs and alcohol
  • Breaking down saturated fat and producing cholesterol

Cirrhosis is a slowly progressing disease in which healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue, eventually preventing the liver from functioning properly. The scar tissue blocks the flow of blood through the liver and slows the processing of nutrients, hormones, drugs, and naturally produced toxins. It also slows the production of proteins and other substances made by the liver.

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According to the National Institutes of Health, cirrhosis is the 12th leading cause of death by disease.

What Causes Cirrhosis of the Liver?

Hepatitis C, fatty liver, and alcohol abuse are the most common causes of cirrhosis of the liver in the U.S., but anything that damages the liver can cause cirrhosis, including:

  • Fatty liver associated with obesity and diabetes
  • Chronic viral infections of the liver (hepatitis types B, C, and D; Hepatitis D is extremely rare)
  • Blockage of the bile duct, which carries bile formed in the liver to the intestines, where it helps in the digestion of fats; in babies, this can be caused by biliary atresia in which bile ducts are absent or damaged, causing bile to back up in the liver. In adults, bile ducts may become inflamed, blocked, or scarred, due to another liver disease called primary biliary cirrhosis.
  • Repeated bouts of heart failure with fluid backing up into the liver
  • Certain inherited diseases such as:
    • Cystic fibrosis
    • Glycogen storage diseases, in which the body is unable to process glycogen, a form of sugar that is converted to glucose and serves as a source of energy for the body
    • Alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency, an absence of a specific enzyme in the liver
    • Diseases caused by abnormal liver function, such as hemochromatosis, a condition in which excessive iron is absorbed and deposited into the liver and other organs, and Wilson's disease, caused by the abnormal storage of copper in the liver

Although less likely, other causes of cirrhosis include reactions to prescription drugs, prolonged exposure to environmental toxins, or parasitic infections.

Do People Who Drink A Lot of Alcohol Always Get Cirrhosis of the Liver?

Most people who drink large amounts of alcohol harm their livers in some way, but not all of these people get cirrhosis of the liver. Women who are heavy drinkers are at higher risk than men. People who have hepatitis B or hepatitis C are more likely to suffer liver damage from alcohol.

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