Cirrhosis of the liver
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Cirrhosis is simply the medical term for scarring, so cirrhosis of the liver means that there is excessive scar tissue on the liver. This scar tissue can replace healthy tissue and make it much more difficult for the organ to function properly. In the case of scarring tissue in the liver, the scar tissue cannot do what the healthy tissue can do. The result is that the body, which needs the liver’s functions, is left without a fully functioning but still vital organ. Cirrhosis kills about 26,000 people every year, and costs much more in terms of suffering, missed work, and hospital costs.

The liver is the largest organ in the body. Its job in the body is to make proteins, to help fight off infections by producing immune agents, to filter and clean toxins and bacteria from the blood, to assist in digestion, and to store energy. With too much scar tissue, blood cannot be supplied to all areas of the liver, and it cannot help with these vital functions. This is why cirrhosis can be life-threatening if it is not caught and treated before it can get too bad.


The early stages of cirrhosis present no symptoms, so many people are unaware that they even have this condition at first. As it progresses, the patient does begin to notice some effects. You might feel weak or tired, you might never feel hungry and so lose weight unintentionally, and you might feel constantly sick to your stomach. Cirrhosis also leads to other illnesses. You might find that you bruise easily. You might also bleed easily or have nosebleeds or develop spider-like blood vessels on the surface of the skin. Fluid that is not being processed by the liver might build up in your abdomen (ascites) or in your legs (edema). You may find that medication has a very strong effect on you because the liver is not breaking it down immediately. Many people who suffer with cirrhosis also develop type 2 diabetes, since cirrhosis causes insulin resistance. In addition, with the liver not doing its job efficiently, waste from food may build up in the blood rather than being filtered out, and this can cause confusion or make it hard to think clearly. A poorly functioning liver can put too much pressure on the kidneys, and that can cause the kidneys to fail as well. As the disease progresses, you may become jaundiced and develop severe itching or rashes. Finally, a liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma starts in the scarred liver tissue.
cirrhosis of the liver
Image: Cirrhosis of the liver


There are several different causes for the build up of scar tissue in the liver. Cirrhosis is also called alcoholic liver disease because long-term abuse of alcohol destroys healthy liver tissue and leaves scar tissue; this is the most common cause for cirrhosis in the United States. Hepatitis is also a leading cause of cirrhosis; either viral hepatitis such as B, C, or D, or autoimmune hepatitis, in which the body’s immune system attacks the liver and destroys its cells. Fat deposits and inflammation that are not caused by the consumption of alcohol are known as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH. Some medications can also produce scar tissue, along with other toxins or infections. If the bile ducts are blocked, the back up of bile can also cause the build up of scar tissue.

Some people are particularly susceptible to cirrhosis because of an inherited proclivity. If you suffer from hemochromatosis, which is a disease that results from the body absorbing too much iron, then stores it in the liver and pancreas, you may find yourself with cirrhosis in addition to it. Wilson’s disease is another inherited condition and is the result of too much copper built up in the liver. Protoporphyria is another condition, this one affecting the skin and bone marrow, as well as the liver, which causes scarring. Unfortunately, though doctors know much about what may cause cirrhosis, the cause can sometimes remain a mystery, even after a full battery of tests and examinations are given.


If you go to the doctor with symptoms that might indicate cirrhosis of the liver, he or she will run several tests. They will do a blood test, which will demonstrate immediately whether your liver is working properly. They will also do a visual picture, either through an x-ray, an MRI or an ultrasound, in order to see whether the liver is shrunken or enlarged. These tests are helpful, but the most accurate test is also the most invasive; a liver biopsy allows a doctor remove some liver tissue with a needle, then just to look and see whether there is, in fact, excessive scar tissue on the liver.

Once you get cirrhosis of the liver, there’s no getting rid of it completely. The scar tissue cannot be healed or cured. In fact, most treatments rely more on treating the symptoms or the causes, rather than the scarring itself, and attempt to prevent new scarring from taking place. So if your cirrhosis is caused by drinking too much alcohol, you must stop drinking alcohol. If it is caused by hepatitis, that disease can be treated, and that treatment will, in turn, lessen the severity of the cirrhosis. You should also get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, which can be prevented so that they will not cause further damage to your liver. It’s advisable to get other vaccinations as well, such as the flu shot or a vaccine against pneumonia. Your immune system is already compromised because of your liver’s weakness; you should try to avoid every illness you can. Also, avoid eating raw oysters or other raw shellfish. These can harbor bacteria that healthy people can handle easily, but which can provoke severe infections in people with cirrhosis.

If the cirrhosis is very advanced, treatments may not work. If that is the case, then your liver will fail. Your body cannot live without a working liver. In these extreme cases, many people have to get a liver transplant, in which a diseased liver is replaced by a healthy one.
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