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Symptoms Of Cirrhosis

The Symptoms Of Cirrhosis Can Include Fatigue, Nausea, and Weight Loss

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Updated May 22, 2014

Many people with cirrhosis have no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. However, as scar tissue replaces healthy cells, liver function starts to fail and a person may experience the following symptoms:

  • Exhaustion
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss

As the disease progresses, complications may develop. In some people, these may be the first signs of the disease.

Complications

Loss of liver function affects the body in many ways. Following are common problems, or complications, caused by cirrhosis.

Edema and ascites. When the liver loses its ability to make the protein albumin, water accumulates in the leg (edema) and abdomen (ascites).

Bruising and bleeding. When the liver slows or stops production of the proteins needed for blood clotting, a person will bruise or bleed easily.

Jaundice. Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes that occurs when the diseased liver does not absorb enough bilirubin.

Itching. Bile products deposited in the skin may cause intense itching.

Gallstones. If cirrhosis prevents bile from reaching the gallbladder, a person may develop gallstones.

Toxins in the blood or brain. A damaged liver cannot remove toxins from the blood, causing them to accumulate in the blood and eventually the brain. There, toxins can dull mental functioning and cause personality changes, coma, and even death. Signs of the buildup of toxins in the brain include neglect of personal appearance, unresponsiveness, forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, or changes in sleep habits.

Sensitivity to medication. Cirrhosis slows the liver's ability to filter medications from the blood. Because the liver does not remove drugs from the blood at the usual rate, they act longer than expected and build up in the body. This causes a person to be more sensitive to medications and their side effects.

Portal hypertension. Normally, blood from the intestines and spleen is carried to the liver through the portal vein. But cirrhosis slows the normal flow of blood through the portal vein, which increases the pressure inside it. This condition is called portal hypertension.

Varices. When blood flow through the portal vein slows, blood from the intestines and spleen backs up into blood vessels in the stomach and esophagus. These blood vessels may become enlarged because they are not meant to carry this much blood. The enlarged blood vessels, called varices, have thin walls and carry high pressure, and thus are more likely to burst. If they do burst, the result is a serious bleeding problem in the upper stomach or esophagus that requires immediate medical attention.

Problems in other organs. Cirrhosis can cause immune system dysfunction, leading to infection. Ascites (fluid) in the abdomen may become infected with bacteria normally present in the intestines, and cirrhosis can also lead to kidney dysfunction and failure.

Diagnosis

The doctor may diagnose cirrhosis on the basis of symptoms, laboratory tests, the patient's medical history, and a physical examination. For example, during a physical examination, the doctor may notice that the liver feels harder or larger than usual and order blood tests that can show whether liver disease is present.

If looking at the liver is necessary to check for signs of disease, the doctor might order a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan, ultrasound, or a scan of the liver using a radioisotope (a harmless radioactive substance that highlights the liver). Or the doctor might look at the liver using a laparoscope, an instrument inserted through the abdomen that relays pictures back to a computer screen.

A liver biopsy will confirm the diagnosis. For a biopsy, the doctor uses a needle to take a small sample of tissue from the liver, then examines it for scarring or other signs of disease.

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