How Serious is Cirrhosis?

How Serious is Cirrhosis?

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Over the years, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma (BCBSOK) has worked closely with Loyola University School of Medicine to support research about cirrhosis of the liver. By doing so, we can help doctors anticipate and treat the growing number of cases they now see.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that deaths from alcohol-related liver disease – including cirrhosis – have risen every year since 2006. Nearly every racial, ethnic and age group have seen increases. Experts even warn that human life expectancy is falling the in United States as a result.

Are you or a loved one at risk for cirrhosis? Here’s some important information to keep in mind about the disease.

Most importantly, no one can live without a liver. It performs vital functions that keep the body healthy. Among its functions, the liver turns food and drink into energy and nutrients. It also removes harmful toxins such as alcohol from the blood.

Because of its importance, any problem with the liver can be cause for concern. That includes cirrhosis.

What is Cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis is a disease in which scar tissue builds up in the liver. The scar tissue keeps the liver from working as it should. Anything that harms the liver can cause cirrhosis, but the most common causes are:

  • Alcohol abuse – Long-term alcohol use is the leading cause of cirrhosis in the United States.
  • Hepatitis – Hepatitis C is the second most common cause of cirrhosis, but chronic Hepatitis B and D can also trigger the disease.
  • Fatty liver disease – Fat buildup in the liver not caused by alcohol abuse can also cause cirrhosis. People who have fatty liver disease often are obese, have diabetes, high cholesterol and poor eating habits.

Beginning in the 1970s and through the early 1990s, there were a large number of Hepatitis C infections. Given that it can take 20 to 30 years for cirrhosis to appear in Hepatitis C patients, it is not surprising that the number cirrhosis has recently grown. And experts expect it to keep increasing in the years to come.

What Are the Signs of Cirrhosis?

Unfortunately, the disease is basically undetectable in its early stages. As it  progresses, symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bleeding and bruising easily
  • Swollen belly and legs
  • Yellow discoloration of skin and eyes
  • Itchy skin
  • Weight loss
  • Spider-like blood vessels on the skin

In the Loyola University study sponsored by BCBSOK, researchers found some other insights:

  • Patients with cirrhosis caused by Hepatitis C have worse survival rates than those caused by fatty liver disease.
  • Patients with diabetes have worse survival rates whether their cirrhosis is caused by Hepatitis C or fatty liver disease.
  • Patients who go on to develop liver cancer are more likely to be male, have Hepatitis C or B, and less likely to have alcoholic liver disease.

If you experience any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as you can. Your doctor will usually do an exam, order blood tests and possibly  perform a biopsy the liver if he or she believes you have cirrhosis.

How is Cirrhosis Treated?

There is no magic pill or treatment that can cure cirrhosis. There are ways to slow or stop its progress, though. Treatment depends on the cause of your cirrhosis.  Options can range from lifestyle changes (stop drinking alcohol, lose weight, etc.) to medications. If the liver damage is severe, your doctor may suggest a liver transplant.

How Can I Reduce My Chance of Getting Cirrhosis?

When you take care of your liver, you lower your chances of getting cirrhosis. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Drink alcohol in moderation. For women, that is no more than one drink a night. For men, it’s no more than up to two drinks a night.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Stay physically active and exercise often. Avoid eating fatty foods.
  • Reduce risk for hepatitis. Talk to your doctor about getting a Hepatitis B vaccine. Don’t share needles, and don’t have unprotected sex.

Take steps now to protect your liver and reduce your risk for cirrhosis.

Sources: Drinking-related Liver Disease and Deaths on the Rise in U.S., leaving site icon Reuters, 2019; Cirrhosis, leaving site icon Mayo Clinic, 2021.

Originally published 3/28/2016; Revised 2018, 2021

Anonymous