Cirrhosis refers to the replacement of healthy liver tissue with scar tissue. When a person is suffering from a chronic liver disease, the liver becomes inflamed. That inflammation slowly leads to the creation of scar tissue. Because scar tissue does not perform normal liver functions as living tissue does, the scarred areas of the liver cease to function. Over time, as healthy tissue is replaced with scar tissue, the liver starts to fail. Cirrhosis can also lead to cancer of the liver.
The most common cause of cirrhosis in the U.S. is alcoholism. The liver is responsible for breaking down alcohol, and some of the toxic chemicals in alcohol trigger inflammation, which leads to cirrhosis. This happens gradually, after a decade or more of heavy drinking. Other causes of cirrhosis include hepatitis, fatty liver, bile duct disease, and certain genetic conditions.
Early on, cirrhosis may have no symptoms. But as it progresses, people may experience fatigue, nausea, weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), itching, edema (fluid buildup in the legs), ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen), and mental changes. Cirrhosis is usually diagnosed with a biopsy, in which a doctor removes a tiny sample of liver tissue using a needle.
People diagnosed with cirrhosis can take steps to slow its progression. They should be monitored regularly by a liver specialist, stop drinking alcohol, get vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B, and reduce their salt intake (to minimize swelling). It is important to address the underlying cause of the cirrhosis, so that liver damage can be slowed or stopped. If cirrhosis advances to liver failure, a liver transplant may be necessary.