Visual Guide to Cirrhosis
What Does Cirrhosis Do?
Cirrhosis damages your liver. It causes scarring that slowly replaces healthy tissue. Eventually, this blocks blood flow and makes it harder for your liver to do its job. It won’t be able to filter toxins and help break down nutrients and medications. And the organ won’t make proteins and other substances fast enough to meet your body’s needs. Over the long term, it can shut down your liver.
You may not notice any problems at first. As your cirrhosis gets worse, you might start to feel more tired and less hungry. Your skin may start to itch, look more yellow, and bruise more easily. Your pee may darken, and your belly and legs might swell from extra fluid. Some people get nauseated and foggy-brained and start to forget things.
Cause: Alcohol Addiction
Drinking too much can make your liver swell and hold on to more fat. This could lead to cirrhosis. It typically happens if you drink more than you should every day, sometimes for years. Talk to your doctor if your drinking interferes with your work or home life. The amount of alcohol that causes liver damage differs for each person, so don’t assume that because your heavy-drinking friend didn’t get cirrhosis, you won’t either.
Cause: Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Here, something other than alcohol causes fat buildup in your liver. The exact reason isn’t clear, but you’re more likely to get it if you’re overweight or have diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. When it starts to damage your liver, it’s called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). You may notice symptoms like weight loss, tiredness, weakness, spider veins, or itchy skin.
Cause: Hepatitis C
If you have this disease for 6 months or more, it’s called “chronic” and can lead to cirrhosis. The hepatitis C virus is the most common cause of chronic hepatitis, though there are others, like autoimmune disease as well as medication, bacteria, or other viruses. Hepatitis C often spreads when users of illicit drugs share needles, but you can also get it after having unprotected sex with someone who’s infected.
Cause: Bile Duct Problems
Small tubes, called ducts, normally carry bile — a liquid that helps digestion — from your liver to your gallbladder. A number of conditions can narrow or block these tubes, which causes a backup of fluid that can inflame and damage your liver. How you treat it depends on the cause, but your doctor can usually clear your ducts with medication or minor procedures.
Drugs like methotrexate for arthritis and isoniazid for tuberculosis can hurt your liver and lead to cirrhosis. Certain antibiotics, statins for high cholesterol, and acetaminophen may also be hard on your liver. Your genes, health, diet, and other medicine you take may make a difference, too. Tell your doctor about all your medications and let him know if new drugs seem to make you tired, nauseated, itchy, or otherwise unwell.
Herbs like borage, comfrey, groomwell, and coltsfoot have pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can gum up tiny blood vessels in your liver, either over time or all at once if you take a lot. Others, like Atractylis gummifera, Camellia sinensis, celandine, chaparral, germander, and pennyroyal oil (used in tea), can also cause problems. Over time, this damage could lead to cirrhosis. Tell your doctor about any supplements you take.
Causes: Clots, Genetics, and More
Any condition that scars the liver can cause cirrhosis. Clots can block the flow of blood to the organ or inside it. Your immune system could mistakenly attack and inflame it. Your genes could make it harder for your liver to break down certain nutrients like iron or copper. Or you might inherit conditions that add fat or scarring for no apparent reason.
Your doctor will do a physical exam. Tell him about your symptoms and if you have a history of drinking too much alcohol. Blood tests that check how well your liver is working, along with an ultrasound, X-ray, or MRI, can help confirm that you have cirrhosis. In some cases, your doctor might remove a small piece of your liver to look at under a microscope, a procedure called a biopsy.