What is your liver?
Your liver is a football-sized organ on the right side of your belly, just below your ribs. It has many important jobs:
To make a liquid (bile) that helps your body digest fat
To process nutrients from your digestive tract
To make proteins that help your blood clot
To help break down drugs and poisons so your body can get rid of them
The Digestive System
What is cirrhosis of the liver?
Cirrhosis is a disease in which scar tissue replaces normal liver tissue. The scar tissue grows when your liver is damaged repeatedly over time.
Cirrhosis is caused mainly by drinking too much alcohol for a long time, having viral hepatitis Chronic Hepatitis Hepatitis is inflammation (swelling) of the liver. A chronic illness is one that lasts a long time or may not go away at all. Chronic hepatitis lasts for 6 months or longer. Chronic hepatitis... read more , or having a buildup of fat in your liver (fatty liver Fatty Liver Fatty liver is an abnormal accumulation of certain fats (triglycerides) inside liver cells. People with fatty liver may feel tired or have mild abdominal discomfort but otherwise have no symptoms... read more )
Symptoms include not feeling hungry, weight loss, and feeling weak and tired all over
Doctors can sometimes treat symptoms and problems of cirrhosis, but the damage to your liver is permanent
What are the complications of cirrhosis?
Severe cirrhosis that goes on for a long time can cause several problems:
Portal hypertension Portal Hypertension The portal vein is the large blood vessel that brings blood from your intestines to your liver. Hypertension is a medical term for high blood pressure. So, portal hypertension is high blood... read more (high blood pressure develops in the veins that connect the intestines to the liver)
Liver failure causes many serious complications:
Brain dysfunction (your brain won't work properly)
Difficulty digesting and absorbing food
Portal hypertension causes blood to back up in the veins connected to the liver. These veins may enlarge and twist. The veins at the lower end of the esophagus, in the stomach, or in the rectum may be affected. Enlarged, twisted veins are fragile and prone to bleeding, so you may:
Vomit large amounts of blood
Pass a lot of blood from your rectum
If you bleed slowly and it continues for a long time, you may have a low blood count (anemia Anemia Due to Excessive Bleeding Anemia due to excessive bleeding results when loss of red blood cells exceeds production of new red blood cells. When blood loss is rapid, blood pressure falls, and people may be dizzy. When... read more ). If you bleed rapidly, your blood pressure may become dangerously low (shock Shock Shock is a medical emergency caused by your organs not getting enough blood and oxygen. It has nothing to do with the "shock" we feel when something scares or upsets us. When your body can't... read more ). You may even die.
Liver cancer can develop. If you have cirrhosis, your doctor will do an ultrasound Ultrasonography Ultrasonography is a safe imaging test that uses sound waves to create a moving picture of the insides of your body. Ultrasonography doesn't use radiation (x-rays). Ultrasonography is also called... read more every 6 months to check for liver cancer Liver Cancer Your liver is a football-sized organ on the right side of your belly, just below your ribs. It helps you digest food and makes substances that help your body work. There are 2 kinds of liver... read more .
What causes cirrhosis?
The most common causes of cirrhosis include:
Drinking too much alcohol for a long time
What are the symptoms of cirrhosis?
Many people with cirrhosis don’t have any symptoms for years.
When you do get symptoms, they can include:
Feeling tired and ill
Not feeling hungry and losing weight
A reddish purple rash of tiny dots or larger splotches
Itching all over
If your cirrhosis is caused by alcohol or a long-term liver disorder, you may also have:
Muscles wasting away
Swollen belly (from excess fluid)
Small, bright red spots on your skin with thin blood vessels around them that look like spider legs (spider angiomas Spider Angiomas Spider angiomas are small, bright-red spots that are surrounded by tiny blood vessels (capillaries), which resemble spider legs. They are normal in many healthy people. They commonly develop... read more )
Swollen salivary glands — the glands that make your saliva (spit)
Swollen breasts, shrunken testes, and less hair under arms (in men)
How can doctors tell if I have cirrhosis?
Your doctor will suspect you have cirrhosis if you drink too much or have hepatitis and have some of the symptoms listed above. To tell if you have cirrhosis, doctors will:
Do blood tests to see how well your liver is working (there's no blood test that can tell whether you actually have cirrhosis)
Sometimes do an ultrasound Ultrasonography Ultrasonography is a safe imaging test that uses sound waves to create a moving picture of the insides of your body. Ultrasonography doesn't use radiation (x-rays). Ultrasonography is also called... read more or CT scan Computed Tomography A CT scan uses a large machine shaped like a large donut to take x-rays from many angles. A computer then takes the x-rays and creates many detailed pictures of the inside of your body. Each... read more of your liver
A liver biopsy Biopsy of the Liver Doctors can obtain a sample of liver tissue during exploratory surgery, but more often they obtain a sample by inserting a hollow needle through the person's skin and into the liver. This type... read more (in which a small piece of the liver is removed to look at under a microscope) may be needed if the other tests aren't clear.
How do doctors treat cirrhosis?
There is no cure for cirrhosis. The liver damage is permanent. Doctors will treat your symptoms. You can also help keep the cirrhosis from getting worse by doing the following:
Stop drinking alcohol, if you were drinking too much
Avoid medicines that stress the liver (such as acetaminophen)
Eat foods that are good for you
If you have portal hypertension Portal Hypertension The portal vein is the large blood vessel that brings blood from your intestines to your liver. Hypertension is a medical term for high blood pressure. So, portal hypertension is high blood... read more and enlarged, twisted veins in your esophagus (the tube that connects your throat to your stomach), doctors may:
Give you certain medicines called beta-blockers to lower the pressure in the liver veins
Look down your throat with a flexible scope and close off the enlarged veins by injecting them with a substance or putting special rubber bands around them
If those things don't work, your doctor may put a thin plastic tube in the veins of your liver to re-route the blood and lower the pressure. This is called a TIPS procedure.
If your liver is very bad and barely working, you may need a liver transplant Liver Transplantation Liver transplantation is the surgical removal of a healthy liver or sometimes a part of a liver from a living person and then its transfer into a person whose liver no longer functions. (See... read more (surgery to replace your bad liver with a healthy one). Because alcohol will damage your new liver too, doctors usually do a transplant only if you have stopped drinking.