How Serious is Cirrhosis?

Here comes a bad (but important) pun: You can’t live without your liver! It does a lot of vital things for your body such as:

  • Turning what you eat and drink into energy and nutrients
  • Getting rid of harmful things such as alcohol from your blood

Because of this, any problems with your liver are often a cause for concern. One liver condition that has seen a rise in the number of cases lately is cirrhosis.

What is cirrhosis?
Cirrhosis is a disease where scar tissue builds up in the liver, hindering it from working the right way.
Anything that hurts the liver can cause cirrhosis, but the most common causes are:

  • Alcohol abuse – Long-term alcohol abuse is the leading cause of cirrhosis in the U.S.
  • Hepatitis – Hepatitis C is the second most common cause of cirrhosis, but chronic hepatitis B and D can also cause cirrhosis.
  • Fatty liver disease – Fat buildup in the liver, unrelated to alcohol abuse, can also cause cirrhosis. People who have fatty liver disease often are obese, have diabetes, high cholesterol and poor eating habits.

We at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma (BCBSOK) have recently teamed up with researchers at Loyola University School of Medicine to better understand cirrhosis so we can help doctors anticipate and treat the increasing number of cases they may be seeing. We also want to help you get the facts you may need if you or a loved one has a chance of getting or already has cirrhosis.

There were a large number of hepatitis C infections during the 1970s and up until the early 1990s. That and the fact that it may take 20 or 30 years for cirrhosis to appear in hepatitis C patients may explain why the number of cases of cirrhosis has recently grown and is expecting to keep increasing in the years to come. In fact, the study led by BCBSOK and clinical researchers at Loyola University School of Medicine found that patients with cirrhosis caused by hepatitis C had worse survival rates than those caused by fatty liver disease.

What are the signs of cirrhosis?
Unfortunately, cirrhosis is basically undetectable in the early stages. But as the disease progresses people may have:

  • Feelings of tiredness
  • Nausea
  • Loss of hunger
  • 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

The study found some other interesting insights such as:

  • Patients with diabetes had worse survival rates no matter if their cirrhosis was caused by hepatitis C or fatty liver disease.
  • Patients who go on to develop liver cancer were 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 a biopsy of the liver if they believe you have cirrhosis.

How is cirrhosis treated?
There is no magic pill or treatment that can cure cirrhosis, but there are ways to slow or stop its progress.
The treatment options depend on what’s causing cirrhosis, and can range from lifestyle changes (ex: stop drinking alcohol and lose weight) to meds. If the liver damage is really bad your doctor may suggest a liver transplant.

How can I reduce my chance of getting cirrhosis?
Here are some ways you can take care of your liver and lower your chances of getting cirrhosis:

  • Drink alcohol in moderation – For women that would be one drink a night and for men that’s up to two drinks in a night
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle – Workout often and don't eat too much 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.

How Serious is Cirrhosis?