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.
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.
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:
- drinking too much alcohol over many years
- being infected with hepatitis for a long time, particularly hepatitis C
- non-alcoholic steatohepatitis – a more severe form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, where the liver becomes inflamed as the result of a build-up of excess fat
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.
The best way of preventing alcohol-related cirrhosis is to drink within the recommended limits:
- men and women shouldn't regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week
- spread your drinking over three days or more if you drink as much as 14 units a week
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.
Aim for a healthy weight
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.