Cirrhosis is a condition in which your liver is scarred and permanently damaged. Scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue and prevents your liver from working normally. Scar tissue also partly blocks the flow of blood through your liver. As cirrhosis gets worse, your liver begins to fail.
Many people are not aware that they have cirrhosis, since they may not have signs or symptoms until their liver is badly damaged.
How common is cirrhosis?
Researchers estimate that about 1 in 400 adults in the United States has cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is more common in adults ages 45 to 54. About 1 in 200 adults ages 45 to 54 in the United States has cirrhosis. Researchers believe the actual numbers may be higher because many people with cirrhosis are not diagnosed.1
Who is more likely to get cirrhosis?
People are more likely to get cirrhosis if they have certain health conditions. People are also more likely to get cirrhosis if they1
As the liver fails, complications may develop. In some people, complications may be the first sign of the disease. Complications of cirrhosis may include the following.
Portal hypertension is the most common serious complication of cirrhosis.2 Portal hypertension is a condition that occurs when scar tissue partly blocks and slows the normal flow of blood through your liver, which causes high blood pressure in the portal vein. Portal hypertension and its treatments may lead to other complications, including
Cirrhosis increases your chance of getting liver cancer.3 Most people who develop liver cancer already have cirrhosis.4
Cirrhosis may eventually lead to liver failure. With liver failure, your liver is badly damaged and stops working. Liver failure is also called end-stage liver disease. This may require a liver transplant.
chronic heart failure with liver congestion, a condition in which blood flow out of the liver is slowed
How do doctors diagnose cirrhosis?
Doctors diagnose cirrhosis based on your medical history, a physical exam, and the results of tests.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms. He or she will also ask if you have a history of health conditions that make you more likely to develop cirrhosis.
Your doctor will ask about your use of alcohol and over-the-counter and prescription medicines.
Your doctor will examine your body, use a stethoscope to listen to sounds in your abdomen, and tap or press on specific areas of your abdomen. He or she will check to see if your liver is larger than it should be. Your doctor will also check for tenderness or pain in your abdomen.
What tests do doctors use to diagnose cirrhosis?
Your doctor may recommend the following blood tests
liver tests that can show abnormal liver enzyme levels, which may be a sign of liver damage. Your doctor may suspect cirrhosis if you have
increased levels of the liver enzymes alanine transaminase (ALT), aspartate transaminase (AST), and alkaline phosphatase (ALP)
Your doctor can use blood tests to tell how serious your cirrhosis is.
Imaging tests can show the size, shape, texture, and stiffness of your liver. Measuring the stiffness of the liver can show scarring. Your doctor can use stiffness measures to see if the scarring is getting better or worse. Imaging tests can also show how much fat is in the liver. Your doctor may use one or more of the following imaging tests
transient elastography, a special ultrasound that measures the stiffness of your liver and can measure liver fat
Your doctor may perform a liver biopsy to see how much scarring in is your liver. A liver biopsy can diagnose cirrhosis when the results of other tests are uncertain. The biopsy may show the cause of cirrhosis. Sometimes your doctor may find that something other than cirrhosis has caused your liver to become damaged or enlarged. Your doctor can also diagnose liver cancer based on liver biopsy results.
Doctors do not have specific treatments that can cure cirrhosis. However, they can treat many of the diseases that cause cirrhosis. Some of the diseases that cause cirrhosis can be cured. Treating the underlying causes of cirrhosis may keep your cirrhosis from getting worse and help prevent liver failure. Successful treatment may slowly improve some of your liver scarring.
How do doctors treat the causes of cirrhosis?
Doctors most often treat the causes of cirrhosis with medicines. Your doctor will recommend that you stop activities such as drinking alcohol and taking certain medicines that may have caused cirrhosis or may make cirrhosis worse.
If you have chronic hepatitis C, your doctor may prescribe one or more medicines that have been approved to treat hepatitis C since 2013. Studies have shown that these medicines can cure chronic hepatitis C in 80 to 95 percent of people with this disease.5
Chronic hepatitis B
For chronic hepatitis B, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines that slow or stop the virus from further damaging your liver.
Enlarged veins in your esophagus or stomach, called varices. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to lower the pressure in the veins of your esophagus or stomach. This lowers the chance that the veins become enlarged and burst, causing internal bleeding. If you vomit blood or have black or bloody stools go to a hospital right away. Doctors may perform procedures during upper GI endoscopy or use surgical procedures to stop the internal bleeding.
Swelling in your legs, ankles, or feet, called edema. Your doctor may prescribe medicines that remove fluid from your body. Your doctor will recommend limiting the amount of salt in your diet.
Buildup of fluid in your abdomen, called ascites. Your doctor may prescribe medicines that remove fluid from your body. Your doctor will recommend limiting the amount of salt in your diet. If you have large amounts of fluid in your abdomen, your doctor may use a needle or tube to drain the fluid. He or she will check the fluid for signs of infection. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to treat infection or prevent infection.
Confusion, difficulties thinking, memory loss, personality changes, or sleep disorders, called hepatic encephalopathy. Your doctor may prescribe medicines that help lower the levels of toxins in your brain and improve brain function.
Your doctor may treat liver cancer with the medical procedures that remove or destroy cancer cells, such as surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Doctors also treat liver cancer with a liver transplant.
Liver failure, also called end-stage liver disease, happens when the liver stops working. The only treatment for liver failure is a liver transplant.
Your doctor may treat other complications through changes in medicines, diet, or physical activity. Your doctor may also recommend surgery.
What can I do to help keep my cirrhosis from getting worse?
To help keep your cirrhosis from getting worse, you can do the following
Talk with your doctor about your risk for getting liver cancer and how often you should be checked.
When do doctors consider a liver transplant for cirrhosis?
Your doctor will consider a liver transplant when cirrhosis leads to liver failure. Doctors consider liver transplants only after they have ruled out all other treatment options. Talk with your doctor about whether a liver transplant is right for you.
What should I avoid eating and drinking if I have cirrhosis?
You should avoid eating raw or undercooked shellfish, fish, and meat. Bacteria or viruses from these foods may cause severe infections in people with cirrhosis.
Your doctor may recommend limiting salt in your diet and limiting your intake of fats or protein.
You should completely stop drinking alcohol because it can cause more liver damage.
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This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
(NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.
The NIDDK would like to thank Jasmohan S. Bajaj, M.D., Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine