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Cirrhosis Of The Liver | Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Treatment

Published on August 16, 2021
Cirrhosis Of The Liver | Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Treatment

Your liver is among the most important organs in your body. It removes toxins from your blood, regulates blood clotting, helps fight infections, and performs other essential functions.

Cirrhosis of the liver, also called end-stage liver disease, is a condition that occurs when scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue. It blocks the flow of blood through your liver, which hinders liver function. When left untreated, it can cause life-threatening complications. 

What Causes Cirrhosis Of The Liver?

Cirrhosis of the liver is the final stage of chronic liver disease. The most common causes of chronic liver disease include:

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol can prevent the liver from properly metabolizing protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Over time, this can lead to cirrhosis of the liver.

You face a higher risk of alcohol-induced cirrhosis if you have alcohol use disorder (also called addiction). This disease makes you feel unable to control your alcohol use.

However, even if you don’t have alcohol use disorder, you can develop alcohol-induced cirrhosis from excessive drinking. 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), excessive drinking occurs when women have more than 1 drink a day and men have more than 2 drinks a day. 

Viral Hepatitis

Viral hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by a virus. If you have hepatitis that lasts years (chronic hepatitis), the inflammation can permanently scar your liver, causing cirrhosis. 

There are multiple types of hepatitis. Cirrhosis of the liver is usually caused by hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or hepatitis D. 

Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)

Alcohol can cause fat to build up in your liver and scar tissue. Some people experience this condition even without drinking alcohol. This is called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). 

The two main types of NAFLD are nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFL) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).

Common risk factors for NAFLD include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • diabetes or pre-diabetes
  • obesity
  • coronary artery disease

Other Causes

Other, less common causes of cirrhosis include:

  • excess iron (hemochromatosis)
  • excess copper (Wilson’s disease)
  • destroyed bile ducts (primary biliary cirrhosis)
  • scarred bile ducts (primary sclerosing cholangitis)
  • alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a condition that can damage your liver and lungs
  • cystic fibrosis, a condition that damages your liver, lungs, and other organs
  • glycogen storage disease, a condition that prevents your body from properly storing glycogen (a type of sugar) 
  • certain medications, such as methotrexate (Rheumatrex) and methyldopa (Adolmet)
  • liver damage caused by your immune system (autoimmune hepatitis) 
  • liver damage caused by genetics

Symptoms Of Cirrhosis

In the early stages of cirrhosis, many people have no symptoms at all. Others experience symptoms such as:

  • decreased appetite
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • stomach pain
  • small, red, spider-like blood vessels 

Later symptoms may include:

  • confusion
  • red palms
  • frequent bruising or bleeding
  • itchiness
  • pale or clay-colored stools
  • edema (fluid buildup in the body, especially the hands, arms, legs, ankles, and feet)
  • ascites (fluid buildup in the stomach)
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes) 
  • loss of menstrual periods
  • loss of sex drive 
  • shrinking of the testicles

How Is Cirrhosis Diagnosed?

Most people find out they have cirrhosis during routine checkups To verify a diagnosis of cirrhosis, your health care provider may administer:

  • a blood test
  • an imaging test, such as a CT scan, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, or ultrasound
  • an endoscopy
  • a liver function test
  • a liver biopsy

Treatment Options

Doctors can’t cure cirrhosis. However, they can stop it from progressing and decrease the risk of complications such as: 

  • liver failure
  • liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma)
  • enlarged veins in the esophagus (esophageal varices)
  • loss of brain function (hepatic encephalopathy)
  • infection of abdominal fluid (bacterial peritonitis)
  • increased pressure in the portal vein (portal hypertension) 

To prevent these complications, your doctor will address the underlying cause of your cirrhosis. 

Stop Drinking Alcohol

For example, if your cirrhosis was caused by alcohol abuse, you must stop drinking alcohol. If you feel unable to do so, seek help at a substance abuse treatment program. These programs offer recovery-focused services such as therapy, support groups, and medical detox

Medication

Other underlying causes require medications. For instance, your doctor may prescribe:

  • interferon for viral hepatitis
  • corticosteroids for autoimmune hepatitis
  • penicillamine for Wilson’s disease

Your doctor may also use medications to treat certain symptoms and complications of cirrhosis. They may use beta-blockers to treat portal hypertension, antibiotics to treat infections, and diuretics to treat ascites and edema.

Lifestyle Changes

Most treatment plans also include lifestyle changes. Your doctor may instruct you to exercise more regularly and eat less salt, fat, and simple carbohydrates. 

In addition, your doctor may ask you to schedule vaccinations for influenza, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and pneumonia, as these diseases tend to be more serious in people with cirrhosis. 

Liver Transplant

In severe cases, you may need a liver transplant. Liver transplantation involves removing a severely diseased liver and replacing it with a healthy one.

To reduce your risk of cirrhosis, you must control your alcohol consumption. If you feel unable to do so, please contact an Ark Behavioral Health specialist. We offer comprehensive substance abuse treatment services to help you stay healthy and happy.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Drinking Levels Defined
United States Department of Veterans Affairs - Cirrhosis of the Liver
United States National Library of Medicine - Cirrhosis

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