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What is cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis is long-term scarring of the liver. The liver helps digest food, clean your blood, and fight infection.

What causes cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis is caused by repeated damage to the liver over time. The following can damage the liver:

  • Long-term alcohol abuse
  • Hepatitis B or C infection
  • Fat buildup in the liver
  • Iron buildup in the liver
  • Metabolic disease, such as cystic fibrosis
  • Damage to the bile ducts that blocks the flow of bile

What are the signs and symptoms of cirrhosis?

You may not have any signs or symptoms until your liver damage is severe. You may have any of the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Bleeding and bruising easily
  • Swelling of your feet, legs, or abdomen
  • Nausea, loss of appetite, and weight loss
  • Itching
  • Jaundice (yellowing of your skin or eyes)
  • Black bowel movements or dark urine

How is cirrhosis diagnosed?

  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give caregivers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.
  • Liver biopsy: A small piece of your liver is removed and sent to a lab to test for liver damage.
  • Ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to show pictures of your abdomen. An ultrasound is done to check for damage to your liver or other tissues or organs.
  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray uses a computer to take pictures of your liver. You may be given a dye before the pictures are taken to help healthcare providers see the pictures better. Tell healthcare providers if you are allergic to iodine or shellfish. You may also be allergic to the dye.
  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your liver. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell healthcare providers if you are allergic to iodine or shellfish. You may also be allergic to the dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything made of metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell healthcare providers if you have any metal in or on your body.

How is cirrhosis treated?

  • Medicines: You may need medicine to treat the cause of your cirrhosis. You may also need medicine to treat any health problems caused by cirrhosis.
    • Antiviral medicine: You may need to take antiviral medicine if your cirrhosis is caused by hepatitis. Antiviral medicine may prevent or decrease swelling and damage to your liver.
    • Blood pressure medicine: This is used to treat high blood pressure in the porta vein (the vein that goes to your liver).
    • Diuretics: This medicine is given to decrease edema (excess fluid) that collects in a part of your body, such as your legs and abdomen. Diuretics can also decrease your blood pressure. It is often called water pills. You will urinate more often when you take this medicine.
    • Anti-itching medicine: Caregivers may give you medicine to help keep your skin from itching. This medicine may be given in an IV, as a shot, by mouth, or as a skin lotion. Sometimes this medicine can make you sleepy.
    • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.
  • Surgery:
    • Shunt: A channel is created inside your liver to increase blood flow. The shunt decreases swelling in your abdomen and blood pressure in the porta vein. The shunt also decreases the risk of bleeding in your esophagus and stomach.
    • Liver transplant: You may need a liver transplant if your liver fails.

How can I manage my cirrhosis?

  • Do not drink alcohol: This will help prevent further damage to your liver.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods: People with cirrhosis may have malnutrition. Eat healthy foods, such as fruit, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meat, and fish. Ask if you need to be on a special diet.
  • Limit sodium: You may need to decrease the amount of sodium you eat if you have swelling caused by fluid buildup. Sodium is found in table salt and salty foods such as canned foods, frozen foods, and potato chips.
  • Drink liquids as directed: Ask what amount is best for you. For most people, good liquids to drink are water, juice, and milk.

What are the risks of cirrhosis?

Surgery may lead to bleeding problems or an infection in your abdomen. A liver transplant may result in organ rejection and cause further problems. Without treatment, the scar tissue will continue to replace healthy tissue. This can cause severe liver damage, and your liver can fail. You could go into a coma, or bleed more than expected. This can be life-threatening.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have red or itchy skin.
  • You are in pain and feel weak.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You have pain during a bowel movement and it is black or contains blood.
  • You have a fast heart rate and fast breathing.
  • You are dizzy or confused.
  • You have severe pain in your abdomen.
  • You have trouble breathing.
  • Your vomit looks like it has coffee grinds or blood in it.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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