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Cirrhosis of the liver

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver, which impairs liver function and can be life-threatening if severe.
  • Symptoms include loss of appetite, weight loss, bruising, yellowing of skin and confusion.
  • Common causes are hepatitis infections, long-term alcohol abuse and fatty liver.
  • Diagnosis is by physical examination, and tests such as blood tests, imaging scans or liver biopsy.
  • Cirrhosis can’t be cured, but you can manage your symptoms by avoiding alcohol, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and treating any underlying causes.

What is cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis is permanent scarring of the liver caused by many liver diseases and conditions, such as hepatitis and alcohol abuse.

The liver is a vital organ that performs many important functions for keeping your body healthy, including:

  • removing toxins from your blood
  • storing vitamins, extra glucose and iron
  • making and breaking down hormones and proteins

Although cirrhosis can’t be cured, early diagnosis and treatment can stop or delay its progress. This can minimise damage and reduce the chance of developing complications.

Cirrhosis happens when the liver is permanently damaged, causing scar tissue to replace healthy tissue. It usually develops slowly over many years, and can eventually stop the liver from working properly.

If cirrhosis becomes very serious it causes the liver to fail and can be life-threatening.

Illustration showing a comparison between a healthy liver and one with cirrhosis.
Illustration showing a comparison between a healthy liver and one with cirrhosis.

What are the symptoms of cirrhosis?

Symptoms of cirrhosis usually start slowly and progress as the liver becomes more damaged and stops working properly. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms. They can include:

  • loss of appetite and/or weight loss
  • weakness
  • increased sensitivity to medicines and drugs
  • confusion
  • drowsiness
  • slurred speech

They can also include visible symptoms including:

  • bruising and bleeding easily
  • yellowing of skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • fluid build-up in abdomen (ascites)
  • skin conditions, such as liver spots (solar lentigo), spider veins and rashes
  • swelling in legs (oedema)
  • red palms of the hands

Some of these symptoms can be serious.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes cirrhosis?

Anything that damages the liver can cause cirrhosis, but the most common causes are:

Less common causes include:

  • autoimmune liver disease, such as primary biliary cholangitis (previously known as primary biliary cirrhosis), where the bile ducts in the liver are slowly destroyed by the immune system
  • inherited liver diseases (such as haemochromatosis)

How is cirrhosis diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects you have cirrhosis, they will ask about your symptoms, examine you and refer you for some tests.

Tests that help to diagnose cirrhosis include:

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor if you have symptoms of cirrhosis, especially if you have risk factors for liver problems.

If your doctor has diagnosed you with cirrhosis, seek urgent medical attention if you experience:

  • new or worsening yellowing of your skin or the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
  • blood in your stools, or stools that are black and tar-like
  • vomit that contains fresh blood, or looks like ‘coffee grounds’
  • confusion
  • fever

These are signs that you may be experiencing complications of cirrhosis that need urgent treatment.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is cirrhosis treated?

Treatment depends on the cause and stage of your cirrhosis. Cirrhosis has no cure. However, it is possible to manage the symptoms and any complications, and slow its rate of progression.

Your doctor may recommend that you:

Very advanced cirrhosis can cause the liver to fail. In this case, a liver transplant is the only treatment option.

If you have liver cirrhosis, it’s important you avoid drinking alcohol to prevent further liver damage.

Reduce your chance of catching infections by washing your hands properly and ensuring your vaccinations are up to date. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before you use over-the-counter medications, and tell them you have liver disease.

Can cirrhosis be prevented?

To help reduce your chance of developing liver diseases including cirrhosis:

Hepatitis infections can increase your chance of developing liver problems.

You can reduce your chance of catching hepatitis by:

You can reduce the risk of fatty liver by:

  • exercising regularly
  • eating healthily
  • losing weight

What are the complications of cirrhosis?

Without treatment, cirrhosis of the liver can lead to serious and life-threatening problems including:

  • primary liver cancer — the most common type of cancer that cirrhosis causes is hepatocellular carcinoma
  • liver failure
  • fluid build-up in the abdomen, which can become infected
  • osteoporosis (brittle bones)
  • encephalopathy, which can cause changes in mood and behaviour, confusion or coma

Resources and support

It is important to speak to your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of cirrhosis.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people have a higher risk of liver disease than non-Indigenous Australians. Australian Indigenous Health InfoNet provides a list and map of appropriate health/medical services.

LiverWELL works with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities to improve access to support services for testing and treatment. Call the LiverLine on 1800 703 003.

For more information and support, try these resources:

  • Hepatitis Australia provides a fact sheet about cirrhosis. Call the National Hepatitis Infoline: 1800 437 222 (1800 HEP ABC) for confidential, free access to hepatitis information and support.
  • The Liver Foundation has information about liver diseases and treatments. They also provide recipes and information about diet to help maintain a healthy liver.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2023

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