Health A to Z
Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver caused by long-term liver damage. The scar tissue prevents the liver working properly.
Cirrhosis can eventually lead to liver failure, where your liver stops working, which can be fatal.
But it usually takes years for the condition to reach this stage and treatment can help slow its progression.
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You may not have any symptoms during the early stages of cirrhosis. As your liver becomes more damaged, you may:
As the condition gets worse, further symptoms can include:
See your GP if you think you may have cirrhosis.
Read more about the symptoms of cirrhosis.
If your GP suspects cirrhosis, they'll check your medical history and carry out a physical examination to look for signs of long-term liver disease.
You may have tests to confirm the diagnosis. Tests include:
There's currently no cure for cirrhosis. But it's possible to manage the symptoms and any complications, and slow its progression.
Treating the underlying cause, such as using anti-viral medication to treat a hepatitis C infection, can also stop cirrhosis getting worse.
You may be advised to cut down on or stop drinking alcohol, or lose weight if you're overweight. A wide range of alcohol support services are available.
If your liver is severely scarred, it can stop functioning. In this case, a liver transplant is the only treatment option.
Read more about treating cirrhosis.
In the UK, the most common causes of cirrhosis are:
Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver's cells.
Alcohol-related cirrhosis usually develops after 10 or more years of heavy drinking.
Women who drink heavily are more likely to get liver damage than men, partly because of their different size and build.
The best way of preventing alcohol-related cirrhosis is to drink within the recommended limits:
You should stop drinking alcohol immediately if you have alcohol-related cirrhosis. Alcohol speeds up the rate at which cirrhosis progresses, regardless of the cause.
Your GP can give you help and advice if you're finding it difficult to cut down the amount you drink.
Hepatitis B and C are infections you can get by having unprotected sex or sharing needles to inject drugs.
You may not have any symptoms when you first develop cirrhosis.
In the early stages, the liver can function normally despite being damaged.
You tend to get noticeable symptoms as the liver becomes more severely damaged.
The main symptoms include:
As the condition progresses, you may also have:
See your GP if you think you may have cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis can't be cured, so treatment aims to manage the symptoms and any complications, and stop the condition getting worse.
Making healthy lifestyle changes and taking medicine to treat the underlying cause of the liver damage can help stop cirrhosis getting worse. It can also reduce your risk of developing further health problems.
There are a number of things you can do to help stay healthy and reduce your chances of developing further problems:
Cutting down on salt can help reduce your risk of developing swelling in your legs, feet and tummy caused by a build-up of fluid.
The damage to your liver can also mean it's unable to store glycogen, which provides short-term energy.
When this happens, the body uses its own muscle tissue to provide energy between meals, which leads to muscle wasting and weakness. This means you may need extra calories and protein in your diet.
Healthy snacking between meals can top up your calories and protein. It may also be helpful to eat three or four small meals a day, rather than one or two large meals.
The medication you need will depend on the specific cause of the damage to your liver. For example, if you have viral hepatitis, anti-viral medication may be prescribed.
Treatments to ease the symptoms of cirrhosis include:
If you have advanced cirrhosis, complications caused by the condition may need treatment.
If you vomit blood or have blood in your poo, the veins in your oesophagus (gullet), the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach, may be swollen and leaking blood. These are known as oesophageal varices.
You need urgent medical attention if you have oesophageal varices. See your GP or go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department immediately.
An endoscopy is used to help diagnose oesophageal varices. A number of treatments can also be carried during the procedure to stop the bleeding and reduce the swelling.
The Chesterfield Royal Hospital has more information about treating oesophageal varices (PDF, 360kb).
You may also be given a type of medication called a beta-blocker, such as propranolol or carvedilol, to reduce the risk of bleeding.
A build-up of fluid around your stomach area or legs and ankles is a common complication of advanced cirrhosis.
The main treatments are cutting salt in your diet and taking diuretic tablets, such as spironolactone or furosemide.
If the fluid around your stomach becomes infected, you may need antibiotics. In severe cases, you may need to have the fluid drained from your tummy with a tube.
People with cirrhosis can sometimes develop problems with their brain function (encephalopathy).
Symptoms include confusion, drowsiness and problems concentrating. This happens because the liver isn't clearing toxins properly.
The main treatment for encephalopathy is lactulose syrup. This acts as a laxative and helps clear the toxins that have built up. Resistant cases may be treated with a special type of antibiotic called Rifaximin.
Cirrhosis can affect the liver's ability to make the blood clot, leaving you at risk of severe bleeding if you cut yourself.
You should get specialist advice before having medical procedures, including any dental work.
Your liver may stop functioning if it's severely damaged by scarring. In this situation, a liver transplant is the only option.
This is a major procedure that involves removing your diseased liver and replacing it with a healthy donor liver.
You'll probably have to wait a long time for a liver transplant as there are more people waiting for a transplant than there are donors.
You won't be able to have a liver transplant if you're still drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.