Cirrhosis is a condition that occurs when chronic diseases cause permanent damage or injury to the liver. The liver is the second largest organ in the body weighing about four pounds and is located in the upper right side of the abdomen, below the ribs. The liver is responsible for performing more functions than any other organ in the body, such as metabolizing the food we eat, filtering and detoxifying poisons in our blood to remove numerous toxic compounds, producing immune agents to control infection and regenerating itself when part of it has been damaged. The scar tissue that forms in cirrhosis harms the structure of the liver, blocking the flow of blood through the organ. It also slows the processing of nutrients, proteins, hormones, drugs, toxins and other substances produced by the liver.
About 25,000 people die from cirrhosis annually, making it the 11th leading cause of death by disease in the United States. Cirrhosis has many causes, but in the U.S., chronic alcoholism and hepatitis C are among the most common. Almost one-half of all cirrhosis deaths are due to excessive alcohol use. Other causes of the disease include chronic hepatitis B and D, autoimmune hepatitis, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), blocked bile ducts, drugs, toxins, infections and certain inherited metabolic diseases such as Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, hemochromatosis, Wilson's disease, galactosemia and glycogen storage diseases.
Many people with cirrhosis do not experience any symptoms in the early stages of the disease. However, as scar tissue replaces healthy cells, liver function may begin to fail, causing the following symptoms. Early Symptoms:
Cirrhosis may be diagnosed based on your symptoms, medical history, physical examination and results of laboratory tests. Tests to confirm a diagnosis of cirrhosis include a complete blood count (CBC), liver enzyme, liver function and electrolyte testing as well as screening for other health conditions such as hepatitis B and C viruses, liver cancer or gallstones.
Treatment of cirrhosis focuses on stopping or delaying the damage to your liver and preventing complications, such as liver failure. When the cause of the condition is known, therapy will aim to specifically manage that illness. For instance, if a patient has hepatitis, the doctor may administer steroids or antiviral drugs for treatment.
Regardless of the cause of cirrhosis, it is essential that every patient avoid all substances, habits and drugs that may further damage the liver or cause complications or liver failure. Alcohol, in addition to causing cirrhosis, may accelerate the progression of liver scarring. All patients with liver disease should not drink any alcohol. Medications also may be given to control the symptoms of cirrhosis.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.