Things you thought you knew about cirrhosis

Dr. Helen Te, liver diseases expert
Dr. Helen Te

You’ve probably heard of cirrhosis, a serious liver disease that leads some people to need liver transplants. But you may be surprised at what actually causes cirrhosis. Here, liver disease expert Helen Te, MD, explains the most common misconceptions about cirrhosis.

I don’t have any symptoms – there’s no way I could have cirrhosis.

False. Many patients who have cirrhosis still have enough liver function to support their body’s daily operations and have no symptoms. Fatigue is a common symptom of cirrhosis, but feeling tired can be caused by many things. It’s only when liver dysfunction or failure sets in that you can experience symptoms like yellowing of the skin or eyes, confusion, fluid buildup in your belly, leg swelling and bleeding.

I don’t drink alcohol, so cirrhosis can’t affect me.

False. Cirrhosis is simply severe scarring of the liver caused by various ‘injuries’ over time. There can be several causes of those injuries, including hepatitis B or C, hereditary disorders of iron or copper overload, liver diseases caused by an overactive immune system, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease or drinking too much alcohol.

I might have cirrhosis, but livers can regenerate. That little guy will fix itself.

Partly false. The liver is indeed a highly regenerative organ, but only if it’s still healthy enough to do so and doesn’t have extensive scar tissue. Once cirrhosis is present, your liver’s regenerative capability becomes very limited. That’s why in most cases, cirrhosis can’t be reversed.

I have cirrhosis, but that doesn’t mean I have liver cancer.

True. Liver cancer is one possible complication of cirrhosis, though. Early detection of liver cancer is critical, so if you do have cirrhosis, your doctor will want you to undergo periodic testing using blood and radiologic tests. Early-stage liver cancer can be cured with surgery or transplantation, depending on your health and the location and size of the tumor.

It’s good news that I’m gaining weight, despite having cirrhosis.

It depends. If your weight gain is from eating too many calories, this can lead to fat deposits on your liver, which can cause further injury. If your weight gain is due to fluid retention, it may be a sign that your liver is deteriorating. With cirrhosis, it’s important to eat a well-balanced diet to provide your body with all of the nutrients it needs and to avoid losing muscle mass.

Now that I’ve been diagnosed with cirrhosis, I’m going to need a liver transplant.

Not necessarily true. Your liver may still be able to perform all of its routine functions on a daily basis for a long time. However, having cirrhosis means you may experience the previously mentioned symptoms and have a risk for developing liver cancer. If your symptoms aren’t adequately controlled with medical therapy or you have early liver cancer that can’t be removed with surgery, you may need a liver transplant.

I have cirrhosis with some complications; a liver transplant will fix my health problems.

Liver transplants are complex surgeries and are usually a patient’s last option to get better. Despite your transplant team’s best intentions and efforts, however, complications from the surgery can occur. You’ll also have to take medications for life to prevent liver rejection. These medications may have side effects such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney dysfunction or neurologic problems. Also, certain liver diseases can reoccur in the new liver after time, like cancer, autoimmune hepatitis, primary sclerosing cholangitis or primary biliary cholangitis. While a liver transplant is your best chance to return to a functional life if you have significant complications from cirrhosis, keeping your liver healthy enough to avoid a liver transplant in the first place is the best approach. You can do this by getting medical care for your liver condition early, taking medications prescribed by your doctor faithfully, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding additional injury to the liver from alcohol.

Cirrhosis

For patients suffering from cirrhosis, slowing down the progression of this serious illness may help preserve your remaining liver function. That’s why it’s important to diagnose what’s causing your cirrhosis as quickly as possible.

Learn more about liver cirrhosis
Helen S. Te, MD

Helen S. Te, MD

Helen S. Te, MD, is an expert in the diagnosis and management of viral hepatitis, chronic liver disease, liver cancer and liver transplantation.

See Dr. Te's bio