Cirrhosis | Digestive Health Program | Loyola Medicine

Cirrhosis

Overview and Facts about Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is a disease that is characterized by tissue scarring in the liver. Specifically, liver cells are damaged and killed, which results in liver tissue damage, scarring, and hardening. This scarring and hardening is called fibrosis as well, which can also enlarge the liver.

As the liver is responsible for removing and processing toxins in the blood and aiding in digestion, cirrhosis can negatively impact both overall feelings of wellness and digestive health. Cirrhosis also negatively affects a person’s ability to fight infections due to impaired or failing liver function. In the United States (US), approximately one in 200 adults between the ages of 45 to 54 are diagnosed with cirrhosis.

Symptoms and Signs of Cirrhosis

Individuals with cirrhosis may live for many years without any noticeable symptoms. However, in severe or advanced stages of the disease, symptoms of liver failure are more noticeable and may include:

  • Enlarged liver
  • Fatigue
  • Fluid accumulation in the abdomen
  • Gallstones
  • High blood pressure in the vein entering the liver
  • Jaundice
  • Kidney failure
  • Low tolerance for medication
  • Poor appetite
  • Severe itching
  • Weight loss​

Causes and Risk Factors of Cirrhosis

Chronic hepatitis, (persistent inflammation in the liver), and alcoholism (excessive alcohol consumption or abuse) are the two most common causes of cirrhosis in the US. Individuals with cirrhosis have an increased risk of developing liver cancer. Type 2 diabetes is also a risk factor for developing liver cirrhosis. The disease is most common in men over the age of 50.

Tests and Diagnosis of Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis can be diagnosed by examining the physical state of the liver. Ultrasounds and physical exams are often the first tests to determine if the liver is enlarged. A special kind of ultrasound called transient elastography (FibroScan) can measure liver stiffness and fat. Other imaging techniques used to examine the liver include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), x-rays, and computerized tomography (CT) scans. Blood tests are also used to look for abnormal enzyme levels, which could indicate liver failure. A small piece of liver tissue may also be removed and examined under a microscope to look for signs of cirrhosis.

Treatment and Care for Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis treatment depends on the stage of the disease. Doctors often consider liver transplant surgery, if the cirrhosis has lead to liver failure. Also, several procedures, such as an upper endoscopy, can be used to facilitate proper blood flow to and from the liver and prevent or reduce bleeding.  

In less severe cases, medication can be used to control the buildup of fluid and toxins in the body due to impaired liver function. Individuals diagnosed with cirrhosis are strongly encouraged to avoid alcohol and other substances to prevent further liver impairment and disease progression.