Cirrhosis is an abnormal liver condition in which there is irreversible scarring of the liver. The main causes are sustained excessive alcohol consumption, viral hepatitis B and C, and fatty liver disease - however, there are many possible causes.
For cirrhosis to develop long-term, continuous damage to the liver needs to occur. When healthy liver tissue is destroyed and replaced by scar tissue the condition becomes serious, as it can start blocking the flow of blood through the liver.
Cirrhosis is a progressive disease, developing slowly over many years, until eventually it can stop liver function (liver failure).
The liver carries out several essential functions, including the detoxification of harmful substances in the body. It also purifies the blood and manufactures vital nutrients.
If cirrhosis is mild the liver can make repairs and continue functioning properly. If the cirrhosis is advanced and more and more scar tissue forms in the liver, the damage is irreparable. The liver tissue is replaced by fibrous scar tissue as well as regenerative nodules (lumps that appear as a consequence of a process in which damaged tissue is regenerated).
Causes of cirrhosis
Common causes of cirrhosis are long-term alcohol abuse, hepatitis B and C infection, and fatty liver disease. Of those, hepatitis B and C together are said to be the leading cause of cirrhosis (WHO). We will take a look at each of these causes in detail below.
Overconsumption of alcohol
According to the NHS (National Health Service), UK, excessive alcohol consumption is when a man drinks more than 21 units and a woman drinks more than 14 units per week.
Alcohol is one of the leading causes of liver cirrhosis.
Toxins, including alcohol, are broken down by the liver. However, if the amount of alcohol is too high the liver will be overworked and liver cells can eventually become damaged.
Heavy, regular, long-term drinkers are much more likely to develop cirrhosis, compared to other healthy people. It is a myth that only alcoholics are at risk - regular and heavy social drinking is also linked to a higher probability of developing cirrhosis.
Typically, heavy drinking needs to be sustained for at least ten years for cirrhosis to develop. The period varies according to each individual.
Regular heavy female drinkers are more likely to develop symptoms compared to men who consume the same amount.
Heavy drinkers will eventually develop fatty liver. The liver breaks down alcohol into carbon dioxide and water, causing fatty liver. As soon as excessive drinking stops the symptoms of fatty liver go away. However, 20% to 30% of those who continue drinking heavily will develop alcoholic hepatitis, the next stage. Approximately 10% of heavy drinkers will subsequently develop cirrhosis - the third stage of alcoholic liver disease.
Health authorities in the UK urge males not to exceed three to four units of alcohol consumption per day, and women should not have more than two to three units daily - to reduce the risk of developing alcohol hepatitis and cirrhosis.
Hepatitis C, a bloodborne infection, can damage the liver and eventually lead to cirrhosis. Hepatitis C is a common cause of cirrhosis in Western Europe, North America, and many other parts of the world. Cirrhosis can also be caused by hepatitis B and D.
Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)
NASH is more likely to occur with people who are obese, diabetes patients, those with high blood lipid (fat) levels, as well as individuals with hypertension (high blood pressure). NASH, in its early stages, begins with the accumulation of too much fat in the liver. The fat causes inflammation and scarring, resulting in possible cirrhosis later on.
The person's own immune system attacks healthy organs in the body as though they were foreign substances. Sometimes the liver is attacked. Eventually the patient can develop cirrhosis.
Some genetic conditions
- Hemochromatosis - iron accumulates in the liver and other parts of the body.
- Wilson's disease - copper accumulates in the liver and other parts of the body.
Blockage of bile ducts
Some conditions and diseases, such as cancer of the bile ducts, or cancer of the pancreas can block the bile ducts, increasing the risk of cirrhosis.
There is thrombosis (blood clots) in the hepatic vein, the blood vessel that carries blood from the liver, leading to liver enlargement and the development of collateral vessels.
Other diseases and conditions
Some of the other diseases and conditions that can contribute to cirrhosis are:
- Cystic fibrosis
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis - hardening and scarring of the bile ducts
- Galactosemia - inability to process sugars in milk
- Schistosomiasis - a parasite commonly found in some developing countries
- Biliary atresia - badly formed bile ducts in babies
- Glycogen storage disease - problems in the storage and energy release vital for cell function.
Symptoms of cirrhosis
A symptom is something the patient feels and reports, while a sign is something other people, including a doctor or a nurse may detect. For example, pain may be a symptom while a rash may be a sign.
Symptoms are not common during the early stages of cirrhosis. However, as scar tissue accumulates the liver's ability to function properly is undermined. The following signs and symptoms may occur:
- Blood capillaries become visible on the skin on the upper abdomen
- Itchy skin
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of bodyweight
- Pain or tenderness in the area where the liver is located
- Red or blotchy palms
The following signs and symptoms may appear as liver cirrhosis progresses:
- Abdomen fills up with fluid, giving the patient a large tummy (ascites)
- Accelerated heartbeat
- Altered personality (as blood toxins build up and affect the brain)
- Bleeding gums
- Body and upper arms lose mass
- Body finds it harder to process alcohol
- Body finds it harder to process drugs
- Fluid buildup on ankles, feet and legs (edema)
- Hair loss
- Higher susceptibility to bruising
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin, whites of the eyes, and tongue)
- Loss of libido (sex drive)
- Memory problems
- More frequent fevers (susceptibility to infections)
- Muscle cramps
- Pain on the right shoulder
- Panting (breathlessness)
- Stools become black and tarry, or very pale
- Urine becomes darker
- Vomiting blood
- Walking problems (staggering).
On the next page we look at how cirrhosis is diagnosed as well as the treatment options and how cirrhosis can be prevented.