What is cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis is a type of liver disease. It can happen when you have fibrosis, or scarring, of the liver. A variety of conditions and diseases that affect your liver may cause this scarring. These conditions cause inflammation and swelling. Over time, scar tissue replaces the soft, healthy tissue. That scar tissue keeps your liver from working like it should.

Having a healthy liver is essential to your health. That's why cirrhosis is such a serious disease. Your liver is a major organ. It performs many important functions. It produces bile to help break food down during digestion. Your liver also plays a role in cleaning your blood and ridding your body of harmful substances.

Causes of cirrhosis

Cirrhosis can happen when you have a liver disease or condition that damages your liver tissue. As this degenerative disease progresses, healthy cells are replaced by damaged cells. Over time the organ becomes scarred. It can stop working correctly. Severe cases might lead to liver failure and death. This serious liver disease may result from a variety of conditions, including:

Alcohol abuse: This is one of the leading causes of cirrhosis. Heavy alcohol use may damage your liver and cause swelling. There's no set number of drinks that represent a danger, according to The Liver Foundation. Everyone's bodies process alcohol differently.

Bile duct disease: This disease stops the flow of bile from your liver to the gallbladder. The backup of bile in the liver may damage it.

Chronic hepatitis: This is a long-term condition that can happen if you have the hepatitis virus. There are several types of hepatitis viruses. Chronic hepatitis C, B and D are linked to cirrhosis.

Genetic disease: Inherited diseases like Wilson's disease and hemochromatosis may damage the liver.

NASH: Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), or a buildup of fat in your liver, may cause the organ to swell. This can damage the tissue over time. 

Risk factors for cirrhosis

You might develop cirrhosis without any risk factors. Some behaviors do put you at higher risk, including:

  • Drinking too much over a long period of time
  • Having a medical condition like hepatitis C or nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Having inherited disorders like hemochromatosis, a condition that causes iron to build up in your blood and liver

Symptoms of cirrhosis

If you have any risk factors, it's important to talk to your doctor and have regular screenings. Many people don't have any symptoms until cirrhosis progresses to a serious stage. Common symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Itching of the skin
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bruising and bleeding easily
  • Losing weight unexpectedly
  • Confusion and slurred speech

Diagnosis of cirrhosis

You might not have any symptoms at all. Your doctor might detect this disease during a regular blood test. To diagnose cirrhosis, your doctor might check for your liver function. They may order imaging tests. For example, magnetic resonance elastography is a test that can detect the hardening of liver tissue via pictures of the inside of your body. Biopsies can help determine how severe the liver damage is. These tests involve taking a small tissue sample from your liver. A laboratory can analyze them. They can see if cirrhosis may be present.

Treatments for cirrhosis

Your treatment options depend on the amount of damage to your liver. They may also depend on what's causing your illness. Treating it in the early stages often includes lifestyle changes. For example, your doctor may recommend entering rehab to help you stop drinking. Other options can include:

  • Losing weight 
  • Taking medications to control hepatitis B or C
  • Taking medications to control symptoms like fatigue, pain and itching
  • If you have an advanced case, you might start having other problems. Your doctor can recommend treatments to help manage your health. Examples include: 
  • Following a low-sodium diet to control fluid buildup in your body
  • Taking antibiotics and having vaccinations to control and prevent infections
  • Having screenings like blood tests and ultrasound imaging to watch for liver cancer
  • Taking blood pressure drugs, which help control the pressure in the veins of your liver

In extreme cases, your liver might fail. It may stop working, which can lead to death. In this case, your doctor may recommend a liver transplant. Liver transplants are when surgeons remove your non-functioning liver and replace it with a healthy one. 

Recovery from cirrhosis

Working with your doctor and having a strong support system both help. Managing this disease requires lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Not drinking alcohol
  • Avoiding eating raw shellfish
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • Getting plenty of rest and regular exercise
  • Not sharing razors, toothbrushes and other personal items
  • Talking to your doctor about any medicine or supplements you're taking

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