Cirrhosis is a serious condition in which long-term damage to your liver causes scar tissue to replace healthy tissue. Although the damage can’t be reversed, there are things you can do to prevent it in the first place.
Cirrhosis is a type of liver disease. It happens when scarring builds up on your liver through continuous damage from:
- drinking too much alcohol over many years
- being infected with the hepatitis C virus
- having a condition called fatty liver disease.
The scar tissue replaces healthy cells so over time your liver is less able to:
- regulate the fluid in your bloodstream and body
- make enough chemicals for blood clotting
- process waste chemicals, medicines, toxins and other chemicals, so these may build up in your body.
Your liver can eventually stop working. This can be fatal.
Alcohol is a major factor in preventable cirrhosis, with 5% to 15% of heavy drinkers developing it. Women who are heavy drinkers seem to be more prone than men to cirrhosis.
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What are the causes of cirrhosis?
As discussed above, the main causes of cirrhosis are drinking too much alcohol or having hepatitis C or fatty liver disease. Less common causes include hepatitis B infection and inherited liver diseases, such as haemochromatosis.
What are the symptoms of cirrhosis?
There aren't usually any symptoms in the early stages. However, as your liver starts to function less well, you may notice:
- tiredness and weakness
- fluid build-up in your legs and tummy
- loss of appetite, feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting).
- weight loss (although you may put on weight if you retain a lot of fluid)
- tending to bleed and bruise more easily
- yellowing of your skin or the whites of your eyes
- itchy skin
- changes to your personality and behaviour, such as confusion, forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating
- vomiting blood or passing blood with your stools (poo).
How is cirrhosis diagnosed?
See your doctor if you have the symptoms. If your doctor suspects you have cirrhosis, you will need to have some tests. These include:
- liver function tests – blood tests to measure the levels of enzymes and proteins excreted by your liver
- scans – to provide detailed images or to check how stiff your liver is, which indicates how much scarring there is
- biopsy – a fine needle inserted between your ribs to remove a small sample of liver cells to send to a laboratory to be examined.
How is cirrhosis treated?
There is no cure for cirrhosis. The aim of treatment is to ease your symptoms and stop your cirrhosis getting worse. It's important that you stop drinking alcohol.
Treatment may include:
- a low-salt diet or tablets called diuretics to reduce the amount of fluid in your body
- medicine to reduce blood pressure in the main vein that transports blood from your gut to your liver
- medicine to prevent or treat any infection
- creams to reduce itching.
If your liver has become seriously damaged, you may require more specialised treatment. If it can no longer function, you will be put on a waiting list for a liver transplant.
How can I care for myself with cirrhosis?
It is important you that follow all aspects of your treatment to prevent further damage to your liver. This includes not drinking alcohol, following a low-salt diet and losing weight if your doctor has asked you to.
Other lifestyle changes that support your health with cirrhosis include:
- regular exercise
- good hygiene to reduce your risk of getting infections
- a healthy diet, as malnutrition is common in people with cirrhosis.
What support is available for people with cirrhosis?
For help to stop drinking alcohol, call the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, visit Alcohol Drug Helpline or free text 8681 for confidential advice, all available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
If you are finding it hard to cope with your condition, you can get counselling help. Ask your doctor for a referral or find a counsellor here.
How can I prevent cirrhosis?
- Cirrhosis NHS Choices, UK, 2015
- Cirrhosis Patient Info, UK, 2015
- Alcohol – the body and health effects – a brief overview Health Promotion Agency, 2012