Cirrhosis is a chronic disease of the liver. It can be caused by any injury, infection, or inflammation of the liver. With cirrhosis, normal, healthy liver cells are replaced with scar tissue. This prevents the liver from doing its many functions.
The liver is probably the body’s most versatile organ. Among its many tasks are the following:
- Makes bile (a substance that aids in the digestion of fats)
- Produces blood proteins
- Helps the blood to clot
- Metabolizes cholesterol
- Helps maintain normal blood sugar levels
- Forms and stores glycogen (the body’s short-term energy source)
- Makes more than 1,000 enzymes needed for various bodily functions
- Detoxifies substances (e.g., alcohol and certain drugs)
The liver can handle a certain amount of alcohol without much difficulty. But too much alcohol, too often, and for too long, causes the vital tissues in the liver to break down. Fatty deposits accumulate and scarring occurs. Cirrhosis is most commonly found in men over 45. Yet, the number of women getting cirrhosis is on the rise.
To make matters worse, people who regularly overindulge in alcohol generally have poor nutritional habits. When alcohol replaces food, essential vitamins and minerals can be missing from the diet. Malnutrition makes cirrhosis worse.
Alcohol abuse is the most common cause of cirrhosis. Hepatitis, taking certain drugs, or exposure to certain chemicals can also produce this condition.
Signs and Symptoms
Early signs and symptoms are vague, but generally include:
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Dull abdominal ache
Doctors recognize the following as signs of advanced cirrhosis:
- Enlarged liver
- Yellowish eyes and skin and tea-colored urine (indicating jaundice)
- Bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract
- Hair loss
- Swelling in the legs and stomach
- Tendency to bruise easily
- Mental confusion
Treatment and Care
Cirrhosis can be lifethreatening. Get medical attention if you have any of the above symptoms. And needless to say, you (or anyone you suspect of having cirrhosis) should abstain from alcohol and get treatment for alcoholism. If you suspect some toxic substance (e.g., medicines or industrial poisons) has caused the cirrhosis, discuss the possibility with your doctor so that you can identify and get rid of the culprit.
(See “Places to Get Information & Help” under “Liver Diseases” on page 376.)