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What I need to know about Cirrhosis

On this page:

What is cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis* is scarring of the liver. Scar tissue forms because of injury or long-term disease. Scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue and blocks the normal flow of blood through the liver.
A healthy liver
  • makes proteins
  • helps fight infections
  • cleans the blood
  • helps digest food
  • stores a form of sugar that your body uses for energy
Drawing of the digestive system with the liver shaded and labeled within an outline of a male body.
Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver.
A liver with too much scar tissue cannot work properly. You cannot live without a liver that works. But early treatment can control symptoms and keep cirrhosis from getting worse.
Drawings of a normal and a cirrhotic liver. The drawing on the top shows a cross section of normal liver tissue. The drawing on the bottom shows a cross section of cirrhotic liver tissue.​ 
*See the Pronunciation Guide for tips on how to say the words in bold type.

What causes cirrhosis?

Causes of cirrhosis include
  • heavy alcohol use
  • some drugs, medicines, and harmful chemicals
  • infections
  • chronic hepatitis B, C, or D—viral infections that attack the liver
  • autoimmune hepatitis, which causes the body’s immune system to destroy liver cells
  • nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which is often caused by obesity
  • diseases that damage or destroy bile ducts—tubes that carry bile from the liver
Some inherited diseases—diseases that are passed from parent to child—can cause cirrhosis:
  • hemochromatosis, a disease that causes iron to collect in the liver
  • Wilson disease, a condition that causes copper to build up in the liver
  • porphyria, a disorder that affects the skin, bone marrow, and liver

What are the symptoms of cirrhosis?

You may have no symptoms in the early stages of cirrhosis. As cirrhosis gets worse you may
  • feel tired or weak
  • lose your appetite
  • feel sick to your stomach
  • lose weight
  • notice red, spider-shaped blood vessels under your skin
Cirrhosis can lead to other serious problems:
  • You may bruise or bleed easily, or have nosebleeds.
  • Bloating or swelling may occur as fluid builds up in your legs or abdomen—the area between your chest and hips. Fluid buildup in your legs is called edema; buildup in your abdomen is called ascites.
  • Medicines, including those you can buy over the counter such as vitamins and herbal supplements, may have a stronger effect on you. Your liver does not break medicines down as quickly as a healthy liver would.
  • Waste materials from food may build up in your blood or brain and cause confusion or difficulty thinking.
  • Blood pressure may increase in the vein entering your liver, a condition called portal hypertension.
  • Enlarged veins, called varices, may develop in your esophagus and stomach. Varices can bleed suddenly, causing you to throw up blood or pass blood in a bowel movement.
  • Your kidneys may not work properly or may fail.
  • Your skin and the whites of your eyes may turn yellow, a condition called jaundice.
  • You may develop severe itching.
  • You may develop gallstones.
In the early stages, cirrhosis causes your liver to swell. Then, as more scar tissue replaces healthy tissue, your liver shrinks.
A small number of people with cirrhosis also get liver cancer.

How is cirrhosis diagnosed?

Your doctor will examine you and may perform
  • blood tests to see whether your liver is working properly
  • imaging tests, which may show the size of your liver and show swelling or shrinkage
  • a liver biopsy, in which a doctor uses a needle to take a small piece of liver tissue to view with a microscope to look for scar tissue
Drawing of a liver biopsy procedure. A liver is drawn within an outline of a male body. A needle pricks a piece of the liver tissue. An arrow points away from the spot where the needle touches the liver toward a slide with the tissue sample. The liver is labeled.
In a liver biopsy, a doctor uses a needle to take a small piece of liver tissue to view with a microscope.

How is cirrhosis treated?

Once you have cirrhosis, nothing can make all the scar tissue go away. But treating the cause will keep cirrhosis from getting worse. For example, if cirrhosis is from heavy alcohol use, the treatment is to completely stop drinking alcohol. If cirrhosis is caused by hepatitis C, then the hepatitis C virus is treated with medicine.
Drawing of a female doctor who is leaning against a desk, holding an open booklet and a pen in her hand. She is talking to a female patient seated in a chair in front of her. 
Your doctor will suggest treatment based on the cause of your cirrhosis and your symptoms. Being diagnosed early and carefully following a treatment plan can help many people with cirrhosis. In the late stages of cirrhosis, certain treatments may not be effective. In that case, your doctor will work with you to prevent or manage the problems that cirrhosis can cause.

What if the cirrhosis treatment doesn’t work?

If too much scar tissue forms, your liver could fail. Then you will need a liver transplant. A liver transplant can return you to good health. For information about liver transplantation, see the booklet What I need to know about Liver Transplantation from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

How can I prevent cirrhosis if I already have liver disease?

To prevent cirrhosis,
  • see your doctor for treatment of your liver disease. Many of the causes of cirrhosis are treatable. Early treatment may prevent cirrhosis.
  • try to keep your weight in the normal range. Being overweight can make several liver diseases worse.
  • do not drink any alcohol. Alcohol can harm liver cells. Drinking large amounts of alcohol over many years is one of the major causes of cirrhosis.
  • do not use illegal drugs, which can increase your chances of getting hepatitis B or hepatitis C.
  • see your doctor if you have hepatitis. Treatments for hepatitis B, C, and D are available. If you are on treatment, carefully follow your treatment directions.
  • if you have autoimmune hepatitis, take your medicines and have regular checkups as recommended by your doctor or a liver specialist.

What can I do to keep cirrhosis from getting worse?

To keep cirrhosis from getting worse,
  • do not drink any alcohol.
  • talk with your doctor before taking any medicines, including those you can buy over the counter such as vitamins and herbal supplements. Cirrhosis makes your liver sensitive to certain medicines.
  • get vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Although hepatitis A does not cause cirrhosis, it can damage your liver.
  • ask your doctor about getting a flu shot and being vaccinated against pneumonia.
  • avoid eating raw oysters or other raw shellfish. Raw shellfish can have bacteria that cause severe infections in people with cirrhosis.
Drawing of a man sitting at a table, eating a bowl of soup. He is holding a roll and a drink sits on the table in front of him. A “no alcohol” symbol is in the upper right corner. 

Points to Remember

  • Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver. Scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue.
  • Some common causes of cirrhosis include heavy alcohol use, hepatitis infections, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • In the early stages of cirrhosis, you may have no symptoms. As the disease gets worse, cirrhosis can cause serious problems.
  • Once you have cirrhosis, nothing can make all the scar tissue go away. But treatment can prevent cirrhosis from getting worse.
  • If too much scar tissue forms and your liver fails, you will need a liver transplant.
  • You can take steps to prevent cirrhosis or keep it from getting worse.

Hope through Research

The NIDDK’s Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition supports research into liver diseases such as cirrhosis. Researchers are studying new ways to
  • prevent cirrhosis
  • prevent and treat symptoms of cirrhosis
  • reverse scarring of the liver
Participants in clinical trials can play a more active role in their own health care, gain access to new research treatments before they are widely available, and help others by contributing to medical research. For information about current studies, visit www.ClinicalTrials.gov.

Pronunciation Guide

abdomen (AB-doh-men)
ascites (uh-SY-teez)
autoimmune (AW-toh-ih-MYOON)
cirrhosis (sur-ROH-siss)
edema (eh-DEE-muh)
esophagus (uh-SOF-uh-guhss)
hemochromatosis (HEE-moh-KROH-muh-TOH-siss)
hepatitis (HEP-uh-TY-tiss)
inherited (in-HAIR-it-ed)
jaundice (JAWN-diss)
pneumonia (noo-MOH-nyuh)
porphyria (por-FIHR-ee-uh)
portal hypertension (POR-tuhl) (HY-pur-TEN-shuhn)
supplements (SUH-pluh-muhnts)
transplantation (TRANZ-plan-TAY-shuhn)
vaccinated (VAK-sih-nayt-ed)
varices (VAIR-ih-seez)

For More Information

American Liver Foundation
39 Broadway, Suite 2700
New York, NY 10006
Phone: 1–800–GO–LIVER (1–800–465–4837),
  1–888–4HEP–USA (1–888–443–7872),
  or 212–668–1000
Fax: 212–483–8179
Email: info@liverfoundation.org
Internet: www.liverfoundation.org
Hepatitis Foundation International
504 Blick Drive
Silver Spring, MD 20904–2901
Phone: 1–800–891–0707 or 301–622–4200
Email: hfi@comcast.net
Internet: www.hepfi.org


Publications produced by the Clearinghouse are carefully reviewed by both NIDDK scientists and outside experts. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse would like to thank the following individuals for assisting with the scientific and editorial review of the original version of this publication:
Herbert L. Bonkovsky, M.D.
University of Connecticut at Hartford
Michael W. Fried, M.D.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Timothy R. Morgan, M.D.
VA Medical Center
Long Beach, CA
Thank you also to Rebecca McBurney, R.N., and Yoon Park, R.N., at the Liver Diseases Branch and Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, for facilitating field-testing of the original version of this publication.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse

2 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892–3570
Phone: 1–800–891–5389
TTY: 1–866–569–1162
Fax: 703–738–4929
Email: nddic@info.niddk.nih.gov
Internet: www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov
The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The NIDDK is part of the National Institutes of Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Established in 1980, the Clearinghouse provides information about digestive diseases to people with digestive disorders and to their families, health care professionals, and the public. The NDDIC answers inquiries, develops and distributes publications, and works closely with professional and patient organizations and Government agencies to coordinate resources about digestive diseases.
This publication is not copyrighted. The Clearinghouse encourages users of this publication to duplicate and distribute as many copies as desired.
This publication may contain information about medications. When prepared, this publication included the most current information available. For updates or for questions about any medications, contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration toll-free at 1–888–INFO–FDA (1–888–463–6332) or visit www.fda.gov. Consult your health care provider for more information.

NIH Publication No. 11–5166
October 2010
Page last updated November 25, 2013