How is cirrhosis of the liver treated?

Although there is no cure for cirrhosis, there are treatments that can delay its progress, and in so doing, decrease the damage to liver cells and reduce complications:

  • For cirrhosis caused by alcohol abuse, the person must stop drinking alcohol.
  • For other patients with cirrhosis caused by autoimmune diseases, Wilson’s disease, or hemochromatosis, the doctor will recommend the proper treatments for cirrhosis as well as for the underlying disease.
  • Medications may be given to control the symptoms of cirrhosis.
  • Edema (fluid retention) and ascites (fluid in the abdomen) are treated by reducing salt in the diet. Diuretics (water pills) are used to remove excess fluid and to prevent edema from coming back.
  • Diet and drug therapies can help improve the confused mental state that cirrhosis can cause. For instance, decreasing the amount of salt in the diet results in less fluid retention in the abdomen and legs. Laxatives such as lactulose may be given to help absorb toxins.
  • Some people with severe cirrhosis may need a liver transplant.

What complications are associated with cirrhosis?

  • Variceal bleeding: Varices are enlarged veins, usually in the esophagus (the tube through which food passes to the stomach) and the stomach. Variceal bleeding is caused by portal hypertension, which is an increase in the pressure in the portal vein (the large vessel that carries blood from the digestive organs to the liver). This increase in pressure is caused by a blockage of blood flow through the liver as a result of cirrhosis. These varices become fragile and can bleed easily, causing severe hemorrhaging (bleeding).
  • Hepatic encephalopathy (confused thinking and other mental changes): Hepatic encephalopathy most often occurs when the patient has had cirrhosis for a long time. Toxins produced in our intestines are normally removed by the liver, but once cirrhosis occurs, the liver cannot detoxify as well. Toxins get into the bloodstream and can cause confusion, changes in behavior and even coma. A doctor who is a liver specialist can help control this problem by prescribing a combination of medications and changes in the diet.
  • Other serious complications of cirrhosis: Many other problems can occur as a result of cirrhosis, including:
    • Kidney failure
    • Reduced oxygen in the blood
    • Diabetes
    • Changes in blood counts
    • Increased risk of infections
    • Excessive bleeding and bruising
    • Breast enlargement in men
    • Premature menopause
    • Loss of muscle mass

Some of these complications can be treated with medicines. Once treatment for these complications becomes ineffective, a liver transplant is considered. Almost all of these complications can be cured by transplantation. However, in many cases, careful management can reduce the harmful effects of cirrhosis and can delay or even prevent the need for a liver transplant.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/11/2019.

References

  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Cirrhosis. Accessed 1/14/2019.
  • American Liver Foundation. Cirrhosis of the Liver. Accessed 1/14/2019.
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine/Medline Plus. Cirrhosis. Accessed 1/14/2019.

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