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Understanding Cirrhosis of the Liver

What Causes Cirrhosis of the Liver?

Cirrhosis occurs as the result of long-term injury to the liver. Possible causes include viruses, genetic deficiencies, prolonged obstruction of bile flow, and long periods of exposure to drugs and other toxic substances. In the majority of cases, however, the culprit is excessive consumption of alcohol.

The link between alcohol and cirrhosis is well documented. Studies show that while moderate drinking may actually help prevent strokes and heart disease, heavy drinking has a clearly harmful effect on the liver. For example, the French -- famous for their wine consumption -- have a relatively low incidence of heart disease, but the rate of cirrhosis in France is very high. Many doctors believe that more drinkers die from cirrhosis than are protected from heart disease.

Simply put, the more alcohol you drink -- and the greater the frequency of drinks -- the more likely you are to develop cirrhosis. Because the bodies of men and women process alcohol differently, the amount that you can safely imbibe depends largely on your sex. Women are more susceptible to alcohol-induced liver damage than men.

It's important to note that alcohol tolerance may vary from one person to the next. For some people, one drink per day is enough to leave permanent scars in the liver. If you drink, especially if you do so heavily and often, have a doctor examine you for signs of cirrhosis. This is necessary even if you feel healthy, since the symptoms of cirrhosis often do not appear until it is too late to stop the disease or slow its progress.

Excessive drinking almost inevitably causes some liver damage, but it does not always lead to cirrhosis. Some people who drink heavily develop alcoholic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver that can last a week or two, producing symptoms of nausea, fever, loss of appetite, jaundice, and confusion. Over time, the condition can also lead to cirrhosis. Even light drinkers who go on a bender for several days can develop a condition known as fatty liver, caused when cells of the liver become swollen with accumulated fat and water. This condition can cause pain or tenderness in the liver and abnormalities in other liver functions. Fatty liver can also result from diabetes, elevated cholesterol, obesity, and severe malnutrition.

Another frequent cause of cirrhosis is viral hepatitis, a general term meaning inflammation of the liver because of a viral infection. Of the various forms of this disease, only two, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, are likely to result in cirrhosis. Scarring usually occurs after hepatitis has become chronic (lasting six months or more). The symptoms may be so mild at first that patients with chronic hepatitis do not even realize their livers are scarring. Meanwhile, the damage continues, perhaps resulting in a serious case of cirrhosis later in life. Therefore, it is important for people with hepatitis to have regular medical checkups, especially since hepatitis can be treated and, in some cases, cured. And because hepatitis is contagious, family members of an infected person should also be tested.

WebMD Medical Reference

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