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About Cirrhosis of the Liver: Facts and Information

Cirrhosis of the liver is the end result of years of organ damage. Chronic inflammation slowly builds scar tissue, changing the organ's shape, killing organ cells and altering blood flow. The liver becomes increasingly damaged and loses its capacity to function effectively. Every year, cirrhosis kills approximately 25,000 Americans.




In its final stages, the diseased organ is covered with large areas of scar tissue and regenerative nodules. It may have become enlarged and fatty or it may have shrunk considerably. In either case, blood no longer flows properly through the organ, and vital bodily functions and enzyme production are severely compromised.

Causes of Cirrhosis
Hepatitis and the excessive consumption of alcohol are among the top causes of cirrhosis.

Alcoholism: Research has not yet revealed why some alcoholics develop cirrhosis and others don't. Autopsy information shows that approximately 10 to 15 percent of alcoholics have cirrhosis at the time of death. Alcohol can cause other liver impairments besides cirrhosis.

One of the liver's important functions is to break down toxins, and alcohol is one of these toxins. However, too much alcohol can damage liver cells even as they attempt to destroy the toxin. The by-products of metabolizing alcohol cause further damage. Cells become inflamed and die, starting a degenerative process that results in cirrhosis. The organ often becomes enlarged and develops excess amounts of fat as its ability to function decreases. It can take up to a decade of heavy drinking to produce cirrhosis.

Alpha-1-antitrypsin Deficiency: This is a hereditary disorder that prevents the body from properly utilizing the alpha-1-antitrypsin protein. In some cases, alpha-1-antitrypsin builds up in the liver, where excess amounts can lead to tissue scarring.

Autoimmune Hepatitis: An overly active immune system can attack liver cells, causing inflammation and symptoms similar to hepatitis. Autoimmune reactions sometimes target red blood cells, leading to anemia.

Blocked Bile Ducts: Bile ducts can become blocked because of birth defects, gallbladder surgery complications or inflammation. If the ducts are blocked, bile flows back into the liver, damaging the organ.

Glycogen Storage Disease: This disease is essentially a deficiency of enzymes that control blood sugar or glucose levels. Glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver, where it can cause damage if it builds up to excessive amounts.

Hemochromatosis: Hemochromatosis or iron overload occurs when the body lacks the ability to regulate iron levels. Iron overload can damage and scar many internal organs. It requires early treatment to be successfully controlled.

Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C: Chronic infections of hepatitis B and hepatitis C can cause liver inflammation. Worldwide, hepatitis B accounts for the largest number of cirrhosis cases. Both hepatitis C and B take many years to cause extensive damage, but the results can be fatal.

Hepatotoxicity: Exposure to certain prescription drugs, environmental toxins or chemicals can cause cirrhosis.

Non-alcoholic Steatohepatitis, Malnutrition and Diabetes:Steatohepatitis is the medical term for an enlarged, fatty liver. The condition is usually caused by alcoholism, but can also be the result of malnutrition, obesity and diabetes.

Wilson's Disease: Excess amounts of copper are stored by the body and cause hepatotoxicity and brain dysfunctions.

Alcohol: How much is too much?
The amount of alcohol necessary to trigger alcoholic liver disease varies, and women are more at risk than men. For women, 20 grams per day, and for men, 60 grams per day increases the risk of hepatotoxicity. How much is 20 grams?
  • 60 ml of sixty-proof liquor
  • 200 ml of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 500 ml of beer (5% alcohol).
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Last modified 18 September 2006
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