Cirrhosis means scarring of the liver, which can interfere with normal liver function. There are many causes, including chronic viral hepatitis (Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C), fatty liver disease (NASH and NAFLD) and excessive alcohol use. Whatever the cause, such scarring interferes with normal liver function, which includes such vital responsibilities as:
- Regulating the composition of blood
- Removing toxins from the blood
- Processing and storing nutrients
- Producing proteins
- Metabolizing alcohol and many drugs.
How Cirrhosis Affects the Liver
The liver is an organ vitally important to digestion and the transfer of nutrients from the food we eat to the body’s organs and processes. It also converts potential toxins to harmless substances. Scarring from cirrhosis also alters the blood flow to, from and within the liver and affects the production of bile (which the body requires to break down fats).
Cirrhosis has two clinical stages, compensated and decompensated.
Compensated cirrhosis means that the liver is still managing to function despite partial scarring. Some people may experience no symptoms at this stage, while others may experience:
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Spider angiomas (a red spot on the skin with tiny blood vessels radiating from it)
Decompensated cirrhosis occurs as the scarring of the liver increases. Symptoms may include:
- Jaundice – the yellowing of the skin and whites of the eye
- Fluid buildup causing swelling in the legs (edema) or abdomen (ascites)
- Itching (caused by the excessive bile products)
- Red, blotchy palms
- In men, growth of breast tissue and shrinkage of the testicles
- Easy bruising and excessive bleeding
- Increased risk of infection
Living with cirrhosis requires lifestyle changes to slow the progress of the condition and reduce the risk of complications, including:
- Quitting any alcohol use, even if it is not the cause of your cirrhosis
- Limiting dietary salt and fat
- Eating healthfully – avoiding raw oysters and other raw shellfish
- Your doctor may recommend immunizations against hepatitis A and B, flu, and pneumonia
- Liver transplant evaluation can be arranged.
You will require regular tests of liver function to gauge how your liver is coping with the scarring. Cirrhosis can be slowed with changes to diet and alcohol consumption, but if it progresses to liver failure, the only course of treatment is a liver transplant.