What Is It?
No body organ performs a wider variety of essential jobs than the liver. It:
Cirrhosis is a disease in which normal liver cells are replaced by scar tissue, which interferes with all of these important functions. In extreme cases, the damage is so severe that the only solution is a liver transplant. Cirrhosis is the twelfth leading cause of death by disease in the United States, killing as many as 25,000 people each year. It impairs thousands of other people as the liver gradually loses its ability to function.
Cirrhosis has many causes. In the United States and Europe, the most common causes are excessive alcohol use and chronic infection with the hepatitis C virus.
Alcohol has a toxic effect on liver cells. Alcoholic cirrhosis tends to develop after a decade or more of heavy drinking, although it is possible for "social drinkers" to have cirrhosis. It is not known why some people are more prone to adverse reactions than others, but women are at greater risk of cirrhosis, even when they drink less alcohol than men.
Chronic hepatitis C causes inflammation of the liver that eventually can lead to cirrhosis. One out of every five people with chronic hepatitis C develops cirrhosis after 20 years. Chronic hepatitis B, which causes damage in a similar way, is the leading cause of cirrhosis in the world but is less common in industrialized countries.
Rarer causes of cirrhosis include:
Another cause is a condition called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), in which fat deposition in the liver leads to inflammation and scarring.
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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.
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