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What Is Cirrhosis of the Liver?

Cirrhosis is a serious degenerative disease that occurs when healthy cells in the liver are damaged and replaced by scar tissue, usually as a result of alcohol abuse or chronic hepatitis. As liver cells give way to tough scar tissue, the organ loses its ability to function properly. Severe damage can lead to liver failure and possibly death.

Cirrhosis poses another danger as well: Dense scarring slows the normal flow of blood through the liver, causing blood to find alternate pathways to return to the heart. This includes veins along the stomach and esophagus. The added pressure in these blood vessels, called varices, can cause them to enlarge and, in some cases, rupture. This is especially a problem for the blood vessels in the esophagus.

Every year, about 31,000 people in the U.S. die from cirrhosis, mainly due to alcoholic liver disease and chronic hepatitis C. The disease cannot be reversed or cured except, in some cases, through a liver transplant. It can often be slowed or halted, however, especially if the disease is detected in the early stages of development. Patients who think they might have cirrhosis should see a doctor without delay.

Cirrhosis is serious because of the importance of the organ it affects. The liver, weighing about three pounds and roughly the size of a football, is the largest of the body’s internal organs. Among its many functions, the liver serves as an essential part of the digestive system by producing bile, which is stored in the gallbladder, then released into the small intestine, where it helps break down fatty food. The liver also helps maintain the proper composition of the blood by regulating the amounts of fat, protein, and sugar that enter the bloodstream.

As the body’s primary blood filter, the liver works to detoxify alcohol, drugs, and other potentially harmful chemicals. Along with the spleen, the liver traps and disposes of worn-out red blood cells. And because it aids in the removal of bacteria and viruses from the blood, the liver is a vital component of the immune system. If your liver is not functioning properly, you are more susceptible to infection.

What Causes Cirrhosis of the Liver?

Cirrhosis occurs as the result of long-term injury to the liver. Possible causes include viruses, genetic deficiencies, prolonged obstruction of bile flow, and long periods of exposure to drugs and other toxic substances. In the majority of cases, however, the culprit is excessive consumption of alcohol.

The link between alcohol and cirrhosis is well documented. Studies show that while moderate drinking may actually help prevent strokes and heart disease, heavy drinking has a clearly harmful effect on the liver. For example, the French — famous for their wine consumption — have a relatively low incidence of heart disease, but the rate of cirrhosis in France is very high. Many doctors believe that more drinkers die from cirrhosis than are protected from heart disease.

Simply put, the more alcohol you drink — and the greater the frequency of drinks — the more likely you are to develop cirrhosis. Because the bodies of men and women process alcohol differently, the amount that you can safely imbibe depends largely on your sex. Women are more susceptible to alcohol-induced liver damage than men.

It’s important to note that alcohol tolerance may vary from one person to the next. For some people, one drink per day is enough to leave permanent scars in the liver. If you drink, especially if you do so heavily and often, have a doctor examine you for signs of cirrhosis. This is necessary even if you feel healthy, since the symptoms of cirrhosis often do not appear until it is too late to stop the disease or slow its progress.

WebMD Medical Reference