What is Cirrhosis?

By  , Expert Content
Sep 03, 2012

Cirrhosis is a disease of the liver in which the healthy liver cells are destroyed and replaced by scar tissue. Cirrhosis is caused because of continuous long-standing injury to the liver.
As the healthy cells of the liver are destroyed, it fails to function normally and gradually symptoms develop. Liver is an important organ of the body that is present in the abdomen. It has many important functions such as:

  • helping in digestion of food
  • helping in metabolism of drugs
  • making proteins (the building blocks of the body)
  • making proteins that help the blood to clot.

Causes of cirrhosis of the liver

There are many causes of cirrhosis, but excess alcohol consumption and chronic hepatitis B or C infections are two of the most common causes.

  • Consumption of excess alcohol. This is one of the most common causes of cirrhosis. Risk of developing cirrhosis is directly related to the average alcohol consumption. Research shows that about 50% of all cases of cirrhosis are caused due to alcohol excess.
  • Chronic viral hepatitis. Chronic infection of the liver with hepatitis virus is a common cause of liver damage and cirrhosis. Infection with hepatitis B or C virus is a common cause of chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.
  • Primary biliary cirrhosis. This is a rare disease in which the body attacks the liver cells. It is more common in women than men.
  • Autoimmune chronic active hepatitis. This is another rare cause of cirrhosis in which the body attacks the liver cells and destroys them.
  • Drugs and chemicals. Many drugs and chemicals are known to cause liver damage, but only a few cause cirrhosis.
  • Metabolic and inherited disorders. These are uncommon conditions in which accumulation of toxins occurs in the liver.

The damage caused to liver cells in cirrhosis is permanent and cannot be reversed (liver function does not return to normal with treatment). Gradually, the damage progresses and the liver stops functioning. This is called liver failure.


Some symptoms present in a person with cirrhosis are:

  • general and non-specific symptoms, such as feeling tired and weak, loss of appetite, feeling sick
  • unintended weight loss (i.e. weight loss without actually wanting to lose weight)
  • itching of skin all over the body
  • pain or tenderness in abdomen (especially around the liver)
  • prominent tiny red lines (blood capillaries) visible on the skin above waist level
  • tendency to bleed and bruise easily (such as bleeding from gums, skin bleeds, nosebleeds)
  • loss of hair  
  • frequent fever along with chills (as cirrhosis increases the risk of infections)
  • swelling of legs, ankles and feet
  • swelling of abdomen because of build-up of fluid. This is called ascites (this makes you appear  pregnant)
  • changes in shape and appearance of nails, such as them becoming more curved (clubbing) or appearing white rather than pink
  • enlargement of breasts in men
  • jaundice (yellow discoloration of skin and eyes)
  • neurological symptoms, such as problem with sleeping (insomnia), memory loss, confusion and difficulty in concentrating (encephalopathy).

Treatment of cirrhosis

There is no cure for cirrhosis because liver damage that has occurred already cannot be reversed. Treatment aims to improve the symptoms, manage complications and prevent the condition from getting worse. Treatment of a person with cirrhosis may include:

  • treatment of any underlying disease, which may have caused liver damage and cirrhosis
  • treatment to improve symptoms of cirrhosis, such as low sodium diet and water tablets (diuretics) to remove excess fluid in your body; medications to control high blood pressure in the portal vein; medication for itching; treatment of infection
  • treatment of complications, such as treatment of varices, swelling of leg and abdomen, neurological symptoms (confusion, drowsiness, altered consciousness and coma) and bleeding.

Liver transplant may be done in people with severe liver damage. In this, the diseased liver is removed by surgery and replaced with a healthy donor’s liver.


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