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Understanding cirrhosis

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Cirrhosis can be fatal if the liver fails. Photo: Tatseforlife

Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver caused by continuous, long-term liver damage. Scar tissue replaces healthy tissue in the liver and prevents the liver from working properly.

The damage caused by cirrhosis can’t be reversed and can eventually become so extensive that your liver stops functioning. This is called liver failure.

Cirrhosis can be fatal if the liver fails. However, it usually takes years for the condition to reach this stage and treatment can help slow its progression.

Signs and symptoms
There are usually few symptoms in the early stages of cirrhosis. However, as your liver loses its ability to function properly, you’re likely to experience a loss of appetite, nausea and itchy skin.

In the later stages, symptoms can include jaundice, vomiting blood, dark, tarry-looking stools, and a build-up of fluid in the legs (oedema) and abdomen (ascites).

When to see your doctor
As cirrhosis doesn’t have many obvious symptoms during the early stages, it’s often picked up during tests for an unrelated illness.

See your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms: fever and shivering; shortness of breath; vomiting blood; very dark or black, tarry stools (faeces); and periods of confusion or drowsiness.

What causes cirrhosis? The most common causes of cirrhosis are: drinking too much alcohol (alcohol misuse) over many years; being infected with the hepatitis C virus for a long time; a condition called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) that causes excess fat to build up in the liver

NASH is on the rise due to increasing levels of obesity and reduced physical activity. It’s likely that it will overtake alcohol and hepatitis C as the most common cause of cirrhosis.

Less common causes of cirrhosis include hepatitis B infection and inherited liver diseases, such as haemochromatosis.

Treating cirrhosis
There is currently no cure for cirrhosis. However, it’s possible to manage the symptoms and any complications and slow its progression.

Treating underlying conditions that may be the cause, such as using anti-viral medication to treat a hepatitis C infection, can also stop cirrhosis getting worse.

You may be advised to cut down or stop drinking alcohol or to lose weight if you’re overweight. A wide range of alcohol support services is available. In its more advanced stages, the scarring caused by cirrhosis can make your liver stop functioning. In this case, a liver transplant is the only treatment option.

Preventing cirrhosis
You can reduce your chances of developing cirrhosis by limiting your alcohol consumption and protecting yourself from hepatitis infection.

Limiting your alcohol consumption
Heavy alcohol consumption is one of the most common causes of cirrhosis of the liver. One of the best ways to avoid this is to keep within recommended limits. Men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week. Spread your drinking over three days or more if you drink as much as 14 units a week.

If you have cirrhosis, you should stop drinking alcohol immediately because it speeds up the rate at which the condition progresses, regardless of the cause.

Cirrhosis can be caused by infectious conditions, such as hepatitis B and C. Hepatitis B and C can be caught through having unprotected sex or by sharing needles to inject drugs.

Using a condom when having sex will help you avoid the risk of getting hepatitis, as will avoid injecting drugs.

Being vaccinated against the condition can protect anyone who’s at risk of getting hepatitis B, such as police officers and social care workers. However, there’s currently no vaccine for hepatitis C.

*Dr. Anthony Nwaoney is the Medical Director Richie Hospital and CEO Elshaddia group

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