Cirrhosis is a slow decline of the liver due to the gradual formation of internal scars (fibrosis) in liver tissue. Because of these changes, the liver weakens and is not doing well its many and vital functions. Causes of cirrhosis are numerous. In developed countries, the most common cause of cirrhosis is alcoholism.
Other causes include malnutrition, chronic hepatitis, congestive heart decompensation, and biliary cirrhosis (this type of cirrhosis is an autoimmune disorder). In some cases the cause of cirrhosis is unknown.
The number and variety of symptoms occurring during the gradual development of cirrhosis reflect an extraordinarily important role played by the liver in the functioning of the body.
In the initial stages, while the number of healthy liver cells is still high, the symptoms are very mild. With the progress of the disease other symptoms appear, such as the lack of the appetite and weight loss, nausea, vomiting, general weakness, poor digestion and swelling. The patient often bleeds easily (e.g. from the nose) or gets bruises, and on the face, arms, and upper part of the torzo expanded capillaries in the shape of the star or spider (spider nevus) may appear. A jaundice may appear at a later stage. Men lose their sexual arousal, their breasts begin to swell and become impotent. Women lose their menstruation (see amenorrhea article). Over time, liver failure may occur with retention of fluid in the abdominal cavity and ankles, irritability, and lack of concentration as the main symptoms. The memory is getting worse, and the hands tremble tremendously. The patient is confused and sleepy.
Cirrhosis is a rare disease – except for people who drink a lot. It is therefore most common in countries with high alcohol consumption, e.g. in France. In rare cases, the liver may be damaged by the overdose with some medicines which are otherwise harmless if taken at recommended doses.
Cirrhosis does not progress at the same rate. If it is discovered early, its progress can be stopped, if a patient strictly follows recommended medical advices. On the other hand, in people who can not completely give up alcoholic beverages, a fatal (lethal) liver failure may occur over time.
Liver cirrhosis significantly increases the likelihood of severe bleeding in the digestive tract; bleeding is usually difficult to stop and can accelerate liver failure. If you are suffering from cirrhosis and if you are vomiting your blood, you must seek medical help immediately. In that case, you will need urgent blood transfusions in the hospital.
In very rare cases, liver tumors develop due to cirrhosis (see liver tumors article).
What to do?
If you suspect you have cirrhosis – which is certainly possible if you drink a lot and often – you should contact your doctor. Physical examination is usually enough for a preliminary diagnosis, although you will also need to go to the hospital for special blood tests and liver biopsy to determine the nature and extent of the damage.
Self-help: regardless of the basic cause of cirrhosis, you should immediately stop drinking. If you do not, the disease will certainly worsen. Even if you stop drinking, your liver will remain sensitive to alcohol, so the (small) amount of alcohol that has no offect on a healthy person can kill a person with cirrhosis.
Never take medicines without a doctor’s recommendation. Consume a “strong” nutrition with lots of protein, carbohydrates and vitamins, but a little fat and salt.
Professional help: the doctor will give you nutritional advice, and may prescribe medicines to suppress the symptoms of cirrhosis, such as diuretics that reduce the amount of fluid in the body. Due to possible malnutrition, your doctor may recommend or prescribe various dietary supplements or vitamins. Depending on the cause and stage of cirrhosis, your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids or cytostatics.
Recovery prospects are greatly different from case to case. A person who drank a lot and got the cirrhosis early and then stopped drinking completely and moved on to a “strong” diet, could live quite normal. On the other hand, alcoholics who will not (or cannot) give up drinks, will not recover and the liver failure is imminent. Hospital treatment with medication and nutrient infusions usually leads to some improvement, although frequent liver failure seazures reduce the effectiveness of such therapy.