Join or Renew and Choose Your Gift
- Offer ends Dec. 17
- Discounts on travel and everyday savings
- Subscription to AARP The Magazine
- Free membership for your spouse or partner
Cirrhosis is severe scarring of the liver and poor liver function seen at the end of chronic liver disease. The scarring is most often caused by long-term exposure to toxins such as alcohol or viral infections. The liver, located in the upper right side of the abdomen below the ribs, has many essential body functions, such as:
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) cirrhosis is the 12th leading cause of death due to disease in America. It is more likely to affect men than women.
The liver is a very hearty organ and is normally able to regenerate damaged cells. Cirrhosis develops when the factors that damage the liver (such as alcohol and chronic infections) are present over a long period of time. When this happens, the liver becomes injured and scarred. A scarred liver cannot function properly and cirrhosis results.
Cirrhosis produces changes to the liver, causing it to shrink and harden. This makes it difficult for nutrient rich blood to flow into the liver from the portal vein, a vein that carries blood from the digestive organs to the liver. When blood cannot pass into the liver, the pressure in the portal vein rises. The end result is a serious condition called portal hypertension, in which the vein develops high blood pressure.
The most common causes of cirrhosis in the United States are long-term hepatitis C infection, and chronic alcohol abuse. Obesity is also a cause of cirrhosis. Obesity can be a risk factor by itself, or in combination with alcoholism and hepatitis C.
The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) reports that cirrhosis can develop in women who have two to three alcoholic drinks per day (includes beer and wine). For men, the amount of alcohol that puts them at risk for cirrhosis is three to four drinks daily.
Hepatitis C can be contracted through sexual intercourse, or exposure to infected blood (through intravenous drug abuse and needle sharing or transfusions). Hepatitis C is rarely transmitted by transfusion in the U.S. due to blood bank screening.
Other causes of cirrhosis are:
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that over two billion people are infected with hepatitis B virus world-wide. Hepatitis B can cause liver inflammation and damage that can lead to cirrhosis.
This type of hepatitis can also cause cirrhosis. It is often seen in people who already have hepatitis B.
Autoimmune hepatitis may have a genetic cause. Seventy percent of people with autoimmune hepatitis are women.
Disorders of the system that drains bile (primary biliary cirrhosis).
Disorders that affect the body’s ability to handle iron and copper (hemochromatosis and Wilson’s disease).
Medications, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen, some antibiotics, and some antidepressants, can lead to cirrhosis.
The symptoms of cirrhosis occur because the liver is unable to purify the blood, break down toxins, produce clotting proteins and help with absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins. Often there are no symptoms until the disease has progressed. Some of the symptoms include:
More serious symptoms include:
A diagnosis of cirrhosis begins with a physical exam. A complete medical history is taken. The history may reveal long-term alcohol abuse, exposure to hepatitis C, family history of autoimmune diseases, or other risk factors. The physical exam can show signs like:
Tests can reveal how damaged the liver has become. Some of the tests used for evaluation of cirrhosis are:
Additional tests that can evaluate the liver are:
If your blood is unable to pass through the liver, it creates a backup through other veins such as those in the esophagus. This is called esophageal varices. These veins are not used to high pressures, and begin to bulge from the extra blood flow.
Cirrhosis is a known risk factor for cancer of the liver.
End stage liver disease can also lead to kidney failure.
Other complications from cirrhosis include:
Treatment for cirrhosis varies based on its cause.
Patients must stop drinking alcohol.
Medications (even over-the-counter ones) should not be taken without consulting your doctor. Beta-blockers or nitrates may be prescribed for portal hypertension.
Banding procedures are used to control bleeding from esophageal varices.
Intravenous antibiotics are used to treat peritonitis that can occur with ascites.
Hemodialysis can purify the blood of those in kidney failure.
Lactulose and a low protein diet are used to treat encephalopathy.
Liver transplantation is an option when other treatments fail.
Becoming a non-drinker, eating a balanced diet, and getting adequate exercise can prevent or slow cirrhosis.
You should use latex or vinyl gloves to avoid exposure to contaminated blood and body fluids to avoid getting hepatitis. Avoiding sexual promiscuity and using of condoms can reduce the risk of getting hepatitis C. In the U.S. it is recommended that all infants and at-risk adults (such as health care providers and rescue personnel) be vaccinated against hepatitis B.
Written by: Verneda Lights and Jennifer Nelson
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.
From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.
Members save on purchases from The Popcorn Factory®.
Members save from top retailers online at Everyday Savings Center powered by NextJump.
Members save 10% on all Amazon Kindle e-readers and the Kindle Fire HD tablet.
Get the most out of your AARP membership – opt-in to receive AARP emails today!
Register at a location near you to keep your driving skills sharp.
Find opportunities to volunteer in your neighborhood.
NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon teams up with AARP's Foundation.
AARP Foundation Prepaid MasterCard brought to you by Green Dot.
Nothing has been viewed