Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver caused by long-term liver damage. It prevents the liver working properly. It can eventually lead to liver failure, where your liver stops working, which can be fatal. But it usually takes years for cirrhosis to reach this stage. Treatment can help slow its progression.

Symptoms of cirrhosis

You may not have any symptoms during the early stages of cirrhosis. As your liver becomes more damaged, you may:

As the condition gets worse, further symptoms can include:

  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • vomiting blood
  • itchy skin
  • dark, tarry-looking poo
  • a tendency to bleed or bruise more easily
  • swollen legs (oedema) or tummy (ascites) from a build-up of fluid

See your GP if you think you may have cirrhosis.

Diagnosing cirrhosis

If your GP thinks you may have cirrhosis, they'll check your medical history and carry out a physical examination. This is to look for signs of long-term liver disease.

You may have tests to confirm the diagnosis. Tests include blood tests and scans.

Treating cirrhosis

There's currently no cure for cirrhosis. But it's possible to manage the symptoms and any complications, and slow its progression.

Treating the underlying cause, such as using anti-viral medication to treat a hepatitis C infection, can also stop cirrhosis getting worse.

You may be advised to cut down on or stop drinking alcohol, or lose weight if you're overweight.

If your liver is severely scarred, it can stop functioning. In this case, a liver transplant is the only treatment option.

Causes of cirrhosis

In Northern Ireland, common causes of cirrhosis include:

Alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver's cells.

Alcohol-related cirrhosis usually develops after 10 or more years of heavy drinking.

Women who drink heavily are more likely to get liver damage than men, partly because of their different size and build.

Preventing cirrhosis

Limit alcohol

The best way of preventing alcohol-related cirrhosis is to drink within the recommended limits:

You should stop drinking alcohol immediately if you have alcohol-related cirrhosis. Alcohol speeds up the rate at which cirrhosis progresses, regardless of the cause.

Your GP can give you help and advice if you're finding it difficult to cut down the amount you drink.

Protect yourself from hepatitis

Hepatitis B and C are infections you can get by having unprotected sex or sharing needles to inject drugs.

Using a condom during sex and not injecting drugs will reduce your risk of getting hepatitis B and C.

A vaccine for hepatitis B is available, but there's currently no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Aim for a healthy weight

To reduce your risk of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which can lead to cirrhosis, try to maintain a healthy weight by having a healthy, balanced diet and exercising regularly.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published March 2018

This page is due for review November 2020

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