What Are the Treatments for Cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis isn't curable, but it’s treatable. Doctors have two main goals in treating this disease: Stop the damage to your liver, and prevent complications.

Alcohol abuse, hepatitis, and fatty liver disease are some of the main causes. Your doctor will personalize your treatment based on what caused your cirrhosis, and the amount of liver damage you have.

Alcohol Abuse Treatment

Your liver breaks down and removes toxins from your body. Alcohol is a toxin. When you drink too much, your liver has to work extra hard to process it.

To protect your liver, you must stop drinking. That can be hard to do, especially if you've become dependent on alcohol. Ask your doctor about things you can try that may help you stop drinking, such as:

Hepatitis Treatments

The hepatitis B and C viruses cause liver damage that can lead to cirrhosis. Treatments for these diseases can help prevent liver damage. Options include:

Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Treatments

This is a buildup of fat that damages the liver. You can get it if you're overweight or obese. One way to combat this cause of liver damage is to lose weight with diet and exercise.

Treatments for Autoimmune Hepatitis and Primary Biliary Cirrhosis

In both of these diseases, your body’s natural defense system (immune system) attacks and damages your liver. Primary biliary cirrhosis destroys the bile duct -- the tube that carries the digestive fluid (bile) from the liver to the gallbladder and intestine.

Doctors treat autoimmune hepatitis with steroid drugs and other medicines that stop the immune system from attacking the liver. Side effects may include weight gain, diabetes, weak bones, and high blood pressure.

The main treatment for primary biliary cirrhosis is to slow liver damage with the drug ursodiol (Actigall, Urso). Ursodiol can cause side effects like diarrhea, constipation, dizziness, and back pain.

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Treatments for Cirrhosis Complications

Cirrhosis damage can prevent your liver from doing important jobs like removing toxins from your body and helping you digest foods. It can lead to problems like these:

  • Portal hypertension. Scars in the liver block blood flow through the portal vein. This is the main blood vessel to the liver. This backup of blood increases pressure in the portal vein, as well as in the system of veins that connect to it. Increased blood pressure makes these vessels swell up. High blood pressure drugs called beta-blockers lower pressure in the portal vein and other blood vessels so they don't swell to the point of breaking.
  • Varices. These are swollen blood vessels caused by blocked blood flow. They’re usually found in the esophagus and stomach. They can stretch so much that they eventually break open and bleed. Your doctor can tie a special rubber band around the varices to stop the bleeding. This procedure is called band ligation. A surgery called TIPS is sometimes needed to “shunt” -- meaning redirect -- the blood flow.
  • Fluid buildup. Increased pressure in the portal vein and reduced liver function can cause fluid to build up in your belly. This is called ascites. Your doctor can prescribe medicines called diuretics to help your body get rid of the extra fluid. You might also need antibiotics to prevent bacteria from growing in it and causing an infection. Your doctor can do a procedure to remove fluid from your belly or relieve pressure in your portal vein.
  • Liver cancer. Cirrhosis increases your risk for liver cancer. You'll get blood tests or an ultrasound every 6 to 12 months to look for cancer. If you do get liver cancer, the main treatments are surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.
  • Hepatic encephalopathy. A heavily scarred liver can't remove toxins from your body. These toxins can build up in your blood and damage your brain, leading to memory loss and trouble thinking. To prevent this complication, your doctor will give you medicines to lower the amount of toxins in your blood.

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Liver Transplant

Cirrhosis can damage your liver to the point where it no longer works. This is called liver failure. A transplant means your damaged liver is replaced with a healthy one from a donor. You can wait on an organ transplant list for a deceased donor, or get part of a liver from a living friend or family member.

It can help you live longer, but it's major surgery that comes with risks like bleeding and infection. After surgery, you'll need to take medicines to prevent your body from rejecting the new organ. Because these drugs suppress your immune system, they can increase your risk for infection.

How to Stay Healthy with Cirrhosis

To keep your liver as healthy as possible, make a few changes to your lifestyle:

  • Eat a liver-friendly diet. Cirrhosis can rob your body of nutrients and weaken your muscles. To combat these effects, eat lots of healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean protein from poultry or fish. Avoid oysters and other raw shellfish, because they contain bacteria that could cause an infection. Also, limit salt, which increases fluid buildup in your body.
  • Get vaccinated. Cirrhosis and its treatments weaken your immune system and make it harder to fight off infections. Protect yourself by getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, the flu, and pneumonia.
  • Be careful when you take medicine. Cirrhosis damage makes it harder for your liver to process and remove medicines. Ask your doctor before you take any over-the-counter drug, including herbal remedies. Be very cautious about medicines that can cause liver damage, like acetaminophen (Tylenol).
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on March 26, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American College of Gastroenterology: "Ascites."

American Liver Foundation: "Alcohol-Related Liver Disease," "Autoimmune Hepatitis," "Medication Regimens According to HCV Genotype."

FDA: "Hepatitis B and C Treatments."

Mayo Clinic: "Cirrhosis: Symptoms and Causes," "Cirrhosis: Treatment," "Hepatitis B: Treatments and drugs," "Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: Overview," "Primary biliary cirrhosis: Definition," "Ursodiol (Oral Route): Side Effects."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Cirrhosis," "Primary Biliary Cirrhosis."

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: "Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help."

National Health Service (U.K.): "Cirrhosis - Causes," "Treating Cirrhosis."

National Organization for Rare Disorders: "Hepatic Encephalopathy."

UpToDate: "Cirrhosis: Self-management," "Patient education: Cirrhosis (Beyond the Basics)."

U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Interferon Alfa-2b Injection."

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