Cirrhosis: A Serious Condition

Weighing in at about three pounds, the liver is the largest organ in your body. It also is an important one, carrying out essential functions such as detoxifying harmful substances in your body, purifying your blood and manufacturing vital nutrients.

When chronic diseases cause the liver to become permanently injured and scarred, the condition is called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is a serious condition that leads to nearly 25,000 deaths each year, making it the seventh leading cause of death by disease.

In cases of mild cirrhosis, the liver can repair itself. When the condition becomes severe, however, the liver can stop functioning.

While alcohol abuse is the most well known cause of cirrhosis of the liver, there are many other causes, such as viral hepatitis, cystic fibrosis, fat accumulation in the liver and various diseases relating to parasites and mineral build-up in your body.

People with cirrhosis may have few symptoms at first. Sometimes physicians discover their patients have the disease during a physical exam or surgery for something else. Eventually however, the liver loses function causing such symptoms as fatigue, weakness, exhaustion, and loss of appetite, often with nausea and weight loss. As the cirrhosis becomes more progressed, a build-up of bile may cause jaundice (yellow skin) and generalized itching.

The most serious problem for people with cirrhosis is portal hypertension, pressure on blood vessels that flow through the liver. When the normal blood flow is blocked, the blood tries to pass through new vessels. Some of these vessels, especially those in the stomach and esophagus, have thin walls and are not able to handle the additional flow. If these vessels burst, the resulting blood loss can be fatal.

Cirrhosis is diagnosed through laboratory tests and physical examination. For example, there may be a change in how your liver feels or how large it is. Blood tests can indicate if liver disease is present. The doctor may decide to confirm the diagnosis by taking a sample of tissue from the liver or inspecting the liver through a laparoscope.

Treatment of cirrhosis is aimed at stopping or delaying its progress, minimizing the damage to liver cells and reducing complications. For example, in alcoholic cirrhosis, the person must stop drinking alcohol to halt progression of the disease. In cases of hepatitis, steroids or antiviral drugs often can reduce liver cell injury.

The symptoms of cirrhosis, such as itching and fluid retention, may be controlled by diet and medications. For advanced cases, laxatives may be given to help absorb toxins and speed their removal from the intestines. In critical cases, surgery or even a liver transplant may be necessary.

While cirrhosis is a serious condition not to be ignored, many patients with cirrhosis live long and healthy lives. Even when complications develop, they usually can be treated. Many patients with advanced cirrhosis undergo successful liver transplantation.