What is cirrhosis?
Cirrhosis develops when the liver is permanently damaged and scar tissue replaces healthy tissue.
Cirrhosis develops over many years, eventually preventing the liver from functioning properly.
If cirrhosis becomes so serious it causes the liver to fail, it can be life-threatening.
There are two stages of cirrhosis, each with different symptoms.
Compensated cirrhosis is when your liver has enough healthy cells to work well enough to compensate (make up) for the scarred cells.
Symptoms may be mild or non-existent.
Some symptoms include:
- Generally feeling unwell and tired all the time
- Tenderness or pain in the liver area
- Itchiness over the whole body, especially at night
- Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
- Blotchy red palms
- Spider veins on upper body
- Unusual or persistent darkening of the urine
- Brain fog or feeling a bit vague.
Decompensated cirrhosis is when the liver becomes severely scarred, shrunken and hard and can no longer carry out important jobs such as clearing toxins from the blood.
Although the damage is life threatening, it can still be reversed.
Symptoms are very serious and may include:
- Bleeding varices – enlarged veins in the oesophagus that lead to vomiting blood and black sticky stools (poo)
- Ascites – a build-up of fluid in your stomach that leads to swelling of the stomach and shortness of breath
- Encephalopathy – a build-up of toxins that affect your ability to think clearly, create changes in mood or personality and, in severe cases, loss of consciousness.
If you have any of these symptoms see a doctor immediately.
While anything that damages the liver can cause cirrhosis, the most common causes are:
- Drinking too much alcohol over many years (chronic alcohol abuse)
- Long-term hepatitis B and hepatitis C infection
- A buildup of excess fat in the liver (fatty liver) associated with obesity and diabetes.
Other causes include autoimmune liver disease and inherited liver diseases (such as haemochromatosis, a condition where iron builds up in the liver).
Cirrhosis has no cure. However, it is possible to manage the symptoms and any complications and slow its progression.
Your doctor may recommend:
- Avoiding alcohol. Even if your cirrhosis is not the result of heavy drinking, it is still important to limit how much alcohol you drink or try to stop altogether
- Losing weight (healthy diet and exercise)
- Taking prescription medicines to treat any underlying causes (such as hepatitis B or C, autoimmune disease, or an inherited liver disease).
Very advanced cirrhosis causes the liver to fail. In this case, a liver transplant is the only treatment option.