Cirrhosis is a type of liver disease. It happens when scarring builds up on your liver through continuous damage. Cirrhosis is a serious condition in which long-term damage to your liver causes scar tissue to replace healthy tissue. The scar tissue blocks the flow of blood through the liver. This slows the liver’s ability to process nutrients, hormones, drugs and natural toxins. Although the damage can’t be reversed, there are things you can do to prevent it in the first place.
Many people think that only drinking excessive amounts of alcohol causes liver cirrhosis, but there are a number of other ways that the liver can be damaged and lead to cirrhosis. Depending on the cause, cirrhosis can develop over months or years and can do so without any noticeable symptoms until the damage to the liver is very serious.
What causes cirrhosis?
The most common causes of cirrhosis are long-term viral infections of the liver such as hepatitis types B and C. Also, fatty liver associated with obesity, diabetes and alcohol abuse. In addition, anything that damages the liver can cause cirrhosis. These includes the following:
- Haemochromatosis – the body accumulates iron, which can damage many organs, including the liver
- Cystic fibrosis
- Wilson’s disease – This is a rare inherited disorder where excessive amounts of copper are absorbed in body tissues, particularly the liver;
- Blockage of the bile duct
- Exposure to poisons
- Certain medication such as those used to manage heart arrhythmia’s
- Unknown conditions
- Infections such as schistosomiasis
- Autoimmune hepatitis – This condition is due to a problem with the body’s immune system. The immune system mistakenly recognizes its own liver cells as ‘foreign’ and produces antibodies that attack the liver, resulting in inflammation.
What are the symptoms of cirrhosis?
The symptoms of cirrhosis depend on the stage of the illness. In the beginning stages, there may not be any symptoms. An early sign of cirrhosis is retaining fluid. This may start as a swollen ankle or leg, but can proceed to significant fluid retention in the abdomen (ascites).
By reducing salt in the diet, and using the right combination of diuretics (water pills), fluid retention can be lessened for some time. In more severe cases, a doctor may need to drain fluid from the abdomen. As the disease worsens, symptoms may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of energy (fatigue), weakness
- Weight loss or sudden weight gain
- Bruises which easily occur
- Yellowing of skin or the whites of eyes (jaundice)
- Vomiting blood
- Itchy skin
- Fluid retention (oedema) and swelling in the ankles, legs, and abdomen
- A brownish or orange color to the urine
- Light-colored stools
- Confusion, disorientation, personality changes
- Blood in the stool
- Tenderness/pain in the liver area
- Spider-like small blood capillaries on the skin above waist level
Diagnosis of liver cirrhosis
It is not always easy to diagnose cirrhosis. A doctor will take a careful medical history and carry out a physical examination. Further lab tests will also be done. The tests for cirrhosis include:
- liver function tests – blood tests to measure the levels of enzymes and proteins excreted by your liver
- scans such as CT, MRI– to provide images or to check how stiff your liver is, which indicates how much scarring there is
- biopsy – a fine needle inserted between your ribs to remove a small sample of liver cells to send to a laboratory for examination.
Treatment and lifestyle remedies
Although there is no cure for cirrhosis, there are treatments that can delay its progress. The condition can be fatal if liver damage is severe, but it generally takes years to reach this stage. It is irreversible, so the treatment aims to stop the disease from getting any worse. Your treatment depends partly on the cause.
- If you are a heavy drinker, you will need to stop consuming alcohol.
- Treatment of hepatitis B and C in the early stages is increasingly successful at preventing cirrhosis.
- Lose weight and take medicines to control other conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol.
- Medicines that decrease inflammation such as corticosteroids
- Laxatives such as lactulose may be given to help absorb toxins.
- Medicines known as diuretics can help remove excess fluid
- A low-sodium diet and restricting fluid intake can also help reduce fluid build-up
Take care of yourself by ensuring enough rest and exercise.
Follow sensible hygiene measures if your immunity is low.
Always discuss the use of over-the-counter drugs with your doctor since it is important to avoid some, especially painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen, if you have cirrhosis.
- Creams or ointments can help stop or reduce any itching
- A healthy balanced diet and avoid alcohol
How can I prevent cirrhosis?
The best thing you can do to prevent cirrhosis is to not drink alcohol or drink within the recommended limits. It’s also wise to take steps to prevent hepatitis C and hepatitis B infections.
Many other problems can occur as a result of cirrhosis, including:
- Kidney failure
- Reduced oxygen in the blood
- Increased risk of infections
- Excessive bleeding and bruising
- Premature menopause
- Loss of muscle mass