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Cirrhosis - Topic Overview

Cirrhosis (say "suh-ROH-sus") is a very serious condition in which scarring damages the liver. The liver is a large organ that is part of the digestive system. It does a wide range of complex jobs that are vital for life. For example, the liver:

  • Makes many important substances, including bile to help digest food and clotting factors to help stop bleeding.
  • Filters poisons from the blood.
  • Breaks down (metabolizes) alcohol and many drugs.
  • Controls the amounts of sugar, protein, and fat in the bloodstream.
  • Stores important vitamins and minerals, including iron.

When a person has cirrhosis, scar tissue (fibrosis camera.gif) replaces healthy tissue. This scar tissue prevents the liver from working as it should. For example, the liver may stop producing enough clotting factors, which can lead to bleeding and bruising. Bile and poisons may build up in the blood. Scarring can also cause high blood pressure in the vein that carries blood from the intestines through the liver (portal hypertension). This can lead to severe bleeding in the digestive tract and other serious problems.

Cirrhosis can be deadly. But early treatment can help stop damage to the liver.

Cirrhosis can have many causes. Some of the main ones include:

Less common causes of cirrhosis include severe reactions to medicines or long-term exposure to poisons, such as arsenic. Some people have cirrhosis without an obvious cause.

You may not have symptoms in the early stages of cirrhosis. As it gets worse, it can cause a number of symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue.
  • Small red spots and tiny lines on the skin called spider angiomas.
  • Bruising easily.
  • Heavy nosebleeds.
  • Weight loss.
  • Yellowing of the skin (jaundice).
  • Itching.
  • Swelling from fluid buildup in the legs (edema) and the abdomen (ascites).
  • Bleeding from enlarged veins in the digestive tract.
  • Confusion.

The doctor will start with a physical exam and questions about your symptoms and past health. If the doctor suspects cirrhosis, you may have blood tests and imaging tests, such as an ultrasound or CT scan. These tests can help your doctor find out what is causing the liver damage and how severe it is.

To confirm that you have cirrhosis, the doctor may do a liver biopsy. This means that he or she will use a needle to take a sample of liver tissue for testing.

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