Cirrhosis, irreversible scarring of the liver, commonly caused by the excess consumption of alcohol over many years, reduces the liver's ability to process nutrients, proteins and waste products in the body. As the third leading cause of death in people between the ages of 45 and 65, cirrhosis may also be caused by hepatitis, fatty liver or an overabundance of iron in the body, as well as the ingestion of toxic substances. The symptoms of cirrhosis depend upon the extent of liver scarring.
Early or mild cases of cirrhosis may cause few or no observable symptoms and the patient may experience relatively good health as the healthy portion of the liver continues to function normally. Approximately a third of all cirrhosis patients never experience physical symptoms.
When bile flowing through a damaged liver is blocked, the patient may develop jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes. His skin may become itchy and small yellowish bumps may appear, frequently on the eyelids. In addition, the skin on the patient's fingertips may thicken. This is known as "clubbing."
As cirrhosis progresses, the liver processes fewer fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins for use in the body, increasing the risk of malnutrition. The patient may experience a reduced appetite and greasy stools with a disagreeable odor.
Bones and blood
As the liver fails to process vitamin D sufficiently, the patient may develop osteoporosis and experience reduced blood-clotting ability, increasing the risk of excessive bleeding.
Severe cirrhosis of the liver may result in liver failure. If this happens, muscle wasting may occur and the tendons in the hands may contract, making the fingers appear curled. As the liver loses the ability to break down estrogen in the body, males may develop breasts and shrunken testicles as well as reduced armpit hair. Other organs may suffer, including the spleen, and fluid may pool in the abdomen.
There is no cure for cirrhosis of the liver, but eliminating the cause of the scarring may stop further damage. In patients with advanced cirrhosis, a transplant may be the only chance of survival.