The liver is a vital organ that performs many important functions. Cirrhosis is permanent scarring of the liver caused by a range of liver diseases and conditions, such as hepatitis and alcohol abuse. Although incurable, early diagnosis and treatment can stop or delay its progress, minimise damage and reduce complications.
What is cirrhosis?
Cirrhosis develops when the liver is permanently damaged and scar tissue replaces healthy tissue.
Cirrhosis develops over many years, eventually preventing the liver from functioning properly.
If cirrhosis becomes so serious it causes the liver to fail, it can be life-threatening.
What causes cirrhosis?
While anything that damages the liver can cause cirrhosis, the most common causes are:
- drinking too much alcohol over many years (chronic alcohol abuse)
- long-term hepatitis B and hepatitis C infection
- buildup of excess fat in the liver (fatty liver) associated with obesity and diabetes
Other causes include autoimmune liver disease and inherited liver diseases (such as haemochromatosis, a condition where iron builds up in the liver).
Symptoms come on gradually as the liver loses its ability to work properly. They include:
- tiredness and weakness
- bruising and bleeding easily
- itchy skin
- yellowing of skin and whites of eyes (jaundice)
- fluid buildup in abdomen (ascites)
- appetite loss
- nausea and vomiting
- swelling in legs (oedema)
- weight loss
- very black, dark or tarry stool (poo)
- confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech
- fever and shivering
- red palms of the hands
- spider-like blood vessels on skin
- breast enlargement in men
Cirrhosis has no cure. However, it is possible to manage the symptoms and any complications, and slow its progression.
Your doctor may recommend:
- stop drinking alcohol for good (support groups can help for example Alcoholics Anonymous Australia and Drinkwise Australia)
- losing weight (healthy diet and exercise)
- taking prescription medicines to treat any underlying causes (such as hepatitis C, autoimmune disease, inherited liver disease)
Very advanced cirrhosis causes the liver to fail. In this case, a liver transplant is the only treatment option.
If you have liver cirrhosis, it’s important to avoid drinking alcohol to prevent further liver damage. Cut down on salt and make sure you eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as lean protein. It’s a good idea to eat protein filled meals and snacks often — every 3 or 4 hours. Make sure you avoid infections by washing your hands regularly and getting up to date on your vaccinations, and talk to your doctor or pharmacist before you use over the counter medications.
To help prevent cirrhosis, limit alcohol consumption to no more than the daily recommend amounts, and immunise against hepatitis B infection. Avoid high-risk sexual behaviour (unprotected sex) and unsafe needle practices (i.e. no sharing) to prevent hepatitis infection.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: May 2019