If your doctor tells you that you have cirrhosis, it means you have a condition that causes scar tissue to gradually replace your healthy liver cells. It usually happens over a long period of time because of infection or alcohol addiction. Most of the time, you can't fix the damage to your liver, but if you catch it early, there are treatments that can keep problems in check.
Your liver is an organ that's about the size of a football with an important job. It filters toxins from your blood, makes enzymes that help you digest food, stores sugar and nutrients, and helps you fight infections.
Each time your liver gets hurt, it repairs itself and forms tough scar tissue. When too much scar tissue builds up, the organ can't work right.
You may not have any symptoms at first. But as time goes on, and the damage to your liver gets worse, you may notice things like:
- Jaundice (when your skin and eyes turn yellow)
- Intense itching
- Spider web-like blood vessels in your skin
- Redness in the palms of your hands or whitening of your nails
You could have some changes to the way you think, such as problems with concentration or memory. If you're a woman, you may stop having periods. If you're a man, you could lose your sex drive, start to develop breasts, or see some shrinkage in your testicles.
Some other symptoms you might get are:
- Vomiting blood
- Severe muscle cramps
- Brownish urine
- Enlarged spleen
- Bone disease, causing bones to break more easily
Keep in mind that you may not get all these symptoms, and some of these problems are also signs of other conditions. Learn more about the symptoms of cirrhosis.
Causes, and Things That Make It More Likely
Cirrhosis doesn't happen overnight. You get damage to your liver over a long period of time. The most common things that raise your odds for cirrhosis are:
Conditions that can lead to cirrhosis include:
- Cystic fibrosis
- Diseases that make it hard for your body to process sugars
- Too much iron buildup in your body
- Wilson's disease, where too much copper is stored in the liver
- Autoimmune diseases that cause your body to attack liver cells
- Blockage of the bile duct, which carries digestive enzymes from your liver into the intestines
- Certain genetic digestive disorders
- Some infections, including syphilis and brucellosis
- Bad reactions to certain medications
Diagnosis and Stages of Cirrhosis
Since you might not feel symptoms right away, you may not find out that you have cirrhosis until you get a routine checkup. When you visit your doctor, they'll ask about your alcohol use and medical history. They'll also examine you to check if your liver is tender or larger than it should be.
Tests. If your doctor suspects cirrhosis, they will do a blood test. It will check for signs that your liver isn't working right, such as:
- High levels of certain liver enzymes
- Buildup of bilirubin, which forms from the metabolism of heme. Heme iron comes from hemoglobin and is found in foods from animals such as chicken and red meat.
- Low levels of proteins in your blood
- Abnormal blood count
- Infection with a virus
- Antibodies that appear when you have an autoimmune liver disease
Your doctor may also do an imaging test of your belly, like an MRI or ultrasound. You may also need a procedure called a biopsy, which removes a sample of your liver tissue to see how much damage has been done and potentially learn the cause of your liver disease. Get more information on tests for cirrhosis.
Stages. Your doctor may also tell you what stage your cirrhosis is in. If they say you have compensated cirrhosis, it means your liver has scarring, but it still can do many of its key jobs. You might not notice any symptoms at this point.
If your doctor says you have decompensated cirrhosis, your liver is badly scarred and isn't working right. You'll probably have a lot of symptoms.
Treatment: Home Care, Medications, and Surgery
Your treatment depends on how badly your liver is injured. The goal is to protect the healthy tissue you have left.
The first step is to treat the condition that's causing your cirrhosis to prevent any more damage. This could mean a few different things:
- Stop drinking alcohol right away. Your doctor can suggest a treatment program for addiction.
- Lose weight if you are obese, especially if your cirrhosis is caused by fat buildup in your liver.
- Take medications if you have hepatitis B or C.
Your doctor will also want to treat any complications that can happen with cirrhosis. They may suggest things like:
Low-sodium diet. This can help control swelling. Your doctor may also ask you to take medications for this problem. If you have a severe fluid buildup, you may need to get it drained.
Blood pressure medications. They can lessen bleeding inside your body that's caused by swollen and burst blood vessels. You may need surgery if you have severely enlarged veins.
Your doctor may recommend regular testing to make sure you don't get liver cancer, which can be a complication of cirrhosis.
If your cirrhosis is severe, you may need a liver transplant. It's a major operation. You'll likely need to get on a waiting list for a new liver from an organ donor who has died. Sometimes people with cirrhosis can get part of a liver that is donated from someone who is living. Learn more about treatment options for cirrhosis.
What to Expect
Usually, the damage that's already been done by cirrhosis can't be undone. But your liver can still work and bounce back even if two-thirds of it has been destroyed or removed.
If your cirrhosis is caused by long-term hepatitis, treating the infection can lower your chances of more problems if the damage is caught early. Most people with cirrhosis that's found in its early stage can live healthy lives.
If you are obese or have diabetes, losing weight and controlling your blood sugar can lessen damage caused by fatty liver disease. If the damage is caused by alcohol abuse, you can manage the cirrhosis better if you stop drinking right away.
A healthy lifestyle is a key part of preventing cirrhosis. If you drink alcohol, it's important to be moderate. If you're a man, don't have more than two drinks a day. If you're a woman, your limit should be one drink. If you have an addiction to alcohol, talk to your doctor about ways to quit.
Avoid risky behaviors that can lead to infections of hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Don't share needles when using illicit drugs, and use a condom when you have sex.