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    Understanding Cirrhosis of the Liver

    What Causes Cirrhosis of the Liver? continued...

    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 cause chronic infection which can lead to scarring and 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.

    Cirrhosis sometimes, though rarely, occurs because of an inherited liver disorder. In Wilson's disease, for example, a genetic deficiency inhibits the body's ability to metabolize copper. As a result, excessive amounts of the metal accumulate in various body organs, particularly the liver, where it destroys tissue. Similarly, in hemochromatosis the body absorbs excess amounts of iron, which damages the liver and causes scarring. This disorder mostly strikes men between the ages of 40 and 60; women who have not gone through menopause are usually not affected because their bodies lose iron during menstruation. Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is an enzyme deficiency that results in the accumulation of products in the liver causing destruction of liver tissue.

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