The abdomen of a person with cirrhosis showing massive fluid buildup and very visible veins
Classification and external resources
Pronunciation /sɪˈrsɪs/
Specialty Gastroenterology
ICD-10 K70.3, K71.7, K74
ICD-9-CM 571
DiseasesDB 2729
MedlinePlus 000255
eMedicine med/3183 radio/175
Patient UK Cirrhosis
MeSH D008103

Cirrhosis is a condition in which the liver does not function properly due to long-term damage. Typically, the disease comes on slowly over months or years. Early on, there are often no symptoms. As the disease worsens, a person may become tired, weak, itchy, have swelling in the lower legs, develop yellow skin, bruise easily, have fluid build up in the abdomen, or develop spider-like blood vessels on the skin. The fluid build-up in the abdomen may become spontaneously infected. Other complications include hepatic encephalopathy, bleeding from dilated veins in the esophagus or dilated stomach veins, and liver cancer. Hepatic encephalopathy results in confusion and possibly unconsciousness.[1]

Cirrhosis is most commonly caused by alcohol, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.[1][2] Typically, more than two or three drinks per day over a number of years is required for alcoholic cirrhosis to occur. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is due to a number of reasons, including being overweight, diabetes, high blood fats, and high blood pressure. A number of less common causes include autoimmune hepatitis, primary biliary cirrhosis, hemochromatosis, certain medications, and gallstones. Cirrhosis is characterized by the replacement of normal liver tissue by scar tissue. These changes lead to loss of liver function. Diagnosis is based on blood testing, medical imaging, and liver biopsy.[1]

Some causes of cirrhosis, such as hepatitis B, can be prevented by vaccination. Treatment partly depends on the underlying cause. The goal is often to prevent worsening and complications. Avoiding alcohol is recommended. Hepatitis B and C may be treatable with antiviral medications. Autoimmune hepatitis may be treated with steroid medications. Ursodiol may be useful if the disease is due to blockage of the bile ducts. Other medications may be useful for complications such as swelling, hepatic encephalopathy, and dilated esophageal veins. In severe cirrhosis, a liver transplant may be an option.[1]

Cirrhosis resulted in 1.2 million deaths in 2013, up from 0.8 million deaths in 1990.[2] Of these, alcohol caused 384,000, hepatitis C caused 358,000, and hepatitis B caused 317,000.[2] In the United States, more men die of cirrhosis than women.[1] The first known description of the condition is by Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE.[3] The word cirrhosis is from Greek: κίρρωσις; kirrhos κιρρός "yellowish" and -osis (-ωσις) meaning "condition".[4][5][6]

Video explanation

Signs and symptoms

Liver cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis has many possible manifestations. These signs and symptoms may be either as a direct result of the failure of liver cells or secondary to the resultant portal hypertension. There are also some manifestations whose causes are nonspecific, but may occur in cirrhosis. Likewise, the absence of any does not rule out the possibility of cirrhosis.[7] Cirrhosis of the liver is slow and gradual in its development. It is usually well advanced before its symptoms are noticeable enough to cause alarm. Weakness and loss of weight may be early symptoms.

Liver dysfunction

The following features are as a direct consequence of liver cells not functioning.

Portal hypertension

Liver cirrhosis increases resistance to blood flow and higher pressure in the portal venous system, resulting in portal hypertension. Effects of portal hypertension include:

Unestablished cause

There are some changes seen in cirrhosis whose causes are not clearly known. They may also be a sign of other non-liver related causes.

Advanced disease

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


It has many possible causes; sometimes more than one cause is present in the same person. Globally, 57% of cirrhosis is attributable to either hepatitis B (30%) or hepatitis C (27%).[18] Alcohol consumption is another important cause, accounting for about 20% of the cases.[18]


The liver plays a vital role in synthesis of proteins (for example, albumin, clotting factors and complement), detoxification, and storage (for example, vitamin A). In addition, it participates in the metabolism of lipids and carbohydrates.

Cirrhosis is often preceded by hepatitis and fatty liver (steatosis), independent of the cause. If the cause is removed at this stage, the changes are still fully reversible.

The pathological hallmark of cirrhosis is the development of scar tissue that replaces normal parenchyma. This scar tissue blocks the portal flow of blood through the organ therefore disturbing normal function. Recent research shows the pivotal role of the stellate cell, a cell type that normally stores vitamin A, in the development of cirrhosis. Damage to the hepatic parenchyma (due to inflammation) leads to activation of the stellate cell, which increases fibrosis (through production of myofibroblasts) and obstructs blood flow in the circulation.[24] In addition, it secretes TGF-β1, which leads to a fibrotic response and proliferation of connective tissue. Furthermore, it secretes TIMP 1 and 2, naturally occurring inhibitors of matrix metalloproteinases, which prevents them from breaking down fibrotic material in the extracellular matrix.[25][26]

The fibrous tissue bands (septa) separate hepatocyte nodules, which eventually replace the entire liver architecture, leading to decreased blood flow throughout. The spleen becomes congested, which leads to hypersplenism and increased sequestration of platelets. Portal hypertension is responsible for most severe complications of cirrhosis.


Micrograph showing cirrhosis. Trichrome stain.

The gold standard for diagnosis of cirrhosis is a liver biopsy, through a percutaneous, transjugular, laparoscopic, or fine-needle approach. A biopsy is not necessary if the clinical, laboratory, and radiologic data suggests cirrhosis. Furthermore, there is a small but significant risk to liver biopsy, and cirrhosis itself predisposes for complications caused by liver biopsy.[27] The best predictors of cirrhosis are ascites, platelet count <160,000/mm3, spider angiomata, and Bonacini cirrhosis discriminant score greater than 7.[28]

Lab findings

The following findings are typical in cirrhosis:

There is now a validated and patented combination of 6 of these markers as non-invasive biomarker of fibrosis (and so of cirrhosis): FibroTest.[30]

Other laboratory studies performed in newly diagnosed cirrhosis may include:


Liver cirrhosis with ascites
Liver cirrhosis as seen on a CT of the abdomen in transverse orientation.

Ultrasound is routinely used in the evaluation of cirrhosis. It may show a small and nodular liver in advanced cirrhosis along with increased echogenicity with irregular appearing areas. Other findings suggestive of cirrhosis in imaging are an enlarged caudate lobe, widening of the liver fissures and enlargement of the spleen. An enlarged spleen (splenomegaly), which normally measures less than 11–12 cm in adults, is suggestive of cirrhosis with portal hypertension in the right clinical setting. Ultrasound may also screen for hepatocellular carcinoma, portal hypertension, and Budd-Chiari syndrome (by assessing flow in the hepatic vein).

Cirrhosis is diagnosed with a variety of elastography techniques. Because a cirrhotic liver is generally stiffer than a healthy one, imaging the liver's stiffness can give diagnostic information about the location and severity of cirrhosis. Techniques used include transient elastography, acoustic radiation force impulse imaging, supersonic shear imaging and magnetic resonance elastography. Compared to a biopsy, elastography can sample a much larger area and is painless. It shows reasonable correlation with the severity of cirrhosis.[31]

Other tests performed in particular circumstances include abdominal CT and liver/bile duct MRI (MRCP).


Gastroscopy (endoscopic examination of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum) is performed in patients with established cirrhosis to exclude the possibility of esophageal varices. If these are found, prophylactic local therapy may be applied (sclerotherapy or banding) and beta blocker treatment may be commenced.

Rarely are diseases of the bile ducts, such as primary sclerosing cholangitis, causes of cirrhosis. Imaging of the bile ducts, such as ERCP or MRCP (MRI of biliary tract and pancreas) may aid in the diagnosis.


Cirrhosis leading to hepatocellular carcinoma (autopsy specimen).

Macroscopically, the liver is initially enlarged, but with progression of the disease, it becomes smaller. Its surface is irregular, the consistency is firm, and the color is often yellow (if associated steatosis). Depending on the size of the nodules there are three macroscopic types: micronodular, macronodular, and mixed cirrhosis. In micronodular form (Laennec's cirrhosis or portal cirrhosis) regenerating nodules are under 3 mm. In macronodular cirrhosis (post-necrotic cirrhosis), the nodules are larger than 3 mm. The mixed cirrhosis consists of nodules with different sizes.

However, cirrhosis is defined by its pathological features on microscopy: (1) the presence of regenerating nodules of hepatocytes and (2) the presence of fibrosis, or the deposition of connective tissue between these nodules. The pattern of fibrosis seen can depend on the underlying insult that led to cirrhosis. Fibrosis can also proliferate even if the underlying process that caused it has resolved or ceased. The fibrosis in cirrhosis can lead to destruction of other normal tissues in the liver: including the sinusoids, the space of Disse, and other vascular structures, which leads to altered resistance to blood flow in the liver and portal hypertension.[32]

As cirrhosis can be caused by many different entities which injure the liver in different ways, cause specific abnormalities may be seen. For example, in chronic hepatitis B, there is infiltration of the liver parenchyma with lymphocytes.[32] In cardiac cirrhosis there are erythrocytes and a greater amount of fibrosis in the tissue surrounding the hepatic veins.[33] In primary biliary cirrhosis, there is fibrosis around the bile duct, the presence of granulomas and pooling of bile.[34] Lastly in alcoholic cirrhosis, there is infiltration of the liver with neutrophils.[32]


The severity of cirrhosis is commonly classified with the Child-Pugh score. This score uses bilirubin, albumin, INR, presence and severity of ascites, and encephalopathy to classify patients in class A, B, or C. Class A has a favourable prognosis, while class C is at high risk of death. It was devised in 1964 by Child and Turcotte and modified in 1973 by Pugh and others.[35]

More modern scores, used in the allocation of liver transplants but also in other contexts, are the Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) score and its pediatric counterpart, the Pediatric End-Stage Liver Disease (PELD) score.

The hepatic venous pressure gradient, (difference in venous pressure between afferent and efferent blood to the liver) also determines severity of cirrhosis, although hard to measure. A value of 16 mm or more means a greatly increased risk of dying.[36]


Key prevention strategies for cirrhosis and its compensation are population-wide interventions to reduce alcohol intake (through pricing strategies, public health campaigns, and personal counseling), programs to reduce the transmission of viral hepatitis, and screening of relatives of people with hereditary liver diseases.

Little is known on modulators of cirrhosis risk and progression. Coffee consumption appears to help protect against cirrhosis.[37][38]


Generally, liver damage from cirrhosis cannot be reversed, but treatment could stop or delay further progression and reduce complications. A healthy diet is encouraged, as cirrhosis may be an energy-consuming process. Close follow-up is often necessary. Antibiotics are prescribed for infections, and various medications can help with itching. Laxatives, such as lactulose, decrease risk of constipation; their role in preventing encephalopathy is limited.

Alcoholic cirrhosis caused by alcohol abuse is treated by abstaining from alcohol. Treatment for hepatitis-related cirrhosis involves medications used to treat the different types of hepatitis, such as interferon for viral hepatitis and corticosteroids for autoimmune hepatitis. Cirrhosis caused by Wilson's disease, in which copper builds up in organs, is treated with chelation therapy (for example, penicillamine) to remove the copper.

Preventing further liver damage

Regardless of the underlying cause of cirrhosis, alcohol and paracetamol, as well as other potentially damaging substances, are discouraged. Vaccination of susceptible patients should be considered for Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.


Main article: Liver transplantation

If complications cannot be controlled or when the liver ceases functioning, liver transplantation is necessary. Survival from liver transplantation has been improving over the 1990s, and the five-year survival rate is now around 80%. The survival rate depends largely on the severity of disease and other medical problems in the recipient.[39] In the United States, the MELD score is used to prioritize patients for transplantation.[40] Transplantation necessitates the use of immune suppressants (ciclosporin or tacrolimus).

Decompensated cirrhosis

In patients with previously stable cirrhosis, decompensation may occur due to various causes, such as constipation, infection (of any source), increased alcohol intake, medication, bleeding from esophageal varices or dehydration. It may take the form of any of the complications of cirrhosis listed below.

Patients with decompensated cirrhosis generally require admission to hospital, with close monitoring of the fluid balance, mental status, and emphasis on adequate nutrition and medical treatment - often with diuretics, antibiotics, laxatives and/or enemas, thiamine and occasionally steroids, acetylcysteine and pentoxifylline. Administration of saline is avoided as it would add to the already high total body sodium content that typically occurs in cirrhosis.

Palliative care

Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, and stress of a serious illness, such as cirrhosis. The goal of palliative care is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the patient's family and it is appropriate at any stage and for any type of cirrhosis.[41]

Especially in the later stages, people with cirrhosis experience significant symptoms such as abdominal swelling, itching, leg edema, and chronic abdominal pain which would be amenable for treatment through palliative care.[42] Because the disease is not curable without a transplant, palliative care can also help with discussions regarding the person's wishes concerning health care power of attorney, Do Not Resuscitate decisions and life support, and potentially hospice.[42] Despite proven benefit, people with cirrhosis are rarely referred to palliative care.[43]


Cirrhosis deaths per million persons in 2012
Disability-adjusted life year for cirrhosis of the liver per 100,000 inhabitants in 2004.[44]
  no data


Salt restriction is often necessary, as cirrhosis leads to accumulation of salt (sodium retention). Diuretics may be necessary to suppress ascites. Diuretic options for inpatient treatment include aldosterone antagonists (spironolactone) and loop diuretics. Aldosterone antagonists are preferred for people who can take oral medications and are not in need of an urgent volume reduction. Loop diuretics can be added as additional therapy.[45]

If a rapid reduction of volume is required, paracentesis is the preferred option. This procedure requires the insertion of a plastic tube into the peritoneal cavity. Human albumin solution is usually given to prevent complications from the rapid reduction. In addition to being more rapid than diuretics, 4–5 liters of paracentesis is more successful in comparison to diuretic therapy.[45]

Esophageal variceal bleeding

For portal hypertension, propranolol is a commonly used agent to lower blood pressure over the portal system. In severe complications from portal hypertension, transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunting (TIPS) is occasionally indicated to relieve pressure on the portal vein. As this shunting can worsen encephalopathy, it is reserved for those patients at low risk of encephalopathy. TIPS is generally regarded only as a bridge to liver transplantation or as a palliative measure.

Hepatic encephalopathy

High-protein food increases the nitrogen balance, and would theoretically increase encephalopathy; in the past, this was therefore eliminated as much as possible from the diet. Recent studies show that this assumption was incorrect, and high-protein foods are even encouraged to maintain adequate nutrition.[46]

Hepatorenal syndrome

The hepatorenal syndrome is defined as a urine sodium less than 10 mmol/L and a serum creatinine > 1.5 mg/dl (or 24 hour creatinine clearance less than 40 ml/min) after a trial of volume expansion without diuretics.[47]

Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis

People with ascites due to cirrhosis are at risk of spontaneous bacterial peritonitis.

Portal hypertensive gastropathy

Which refers to changes in the mucosa of the stomach in people with portal hypertension, and is associated with cirrhosis severity.[48]


Cirrhosis can cause immune system dysfunction, leading to infection. Signs and symptoms of infection may be nonspecific and are more difficult to recognize (for example, worsening encephalopathy but no fever).

Hepatocellular carcinoma

Hepatocellular carcinoma is a primary liver cancer that is more common in people with cirrhosis. People with known cirrhosis are often screened intermittently for early signs of this tumor, and screening has been shown to improve outcomes.[49]


Cirrhosis and chronic liver disease were the tenth leading cause of death for men and the twelfth for women in the United States in 2001, killing about 27,000 people each year.[50] Also, the cost of cirrhosis in terms of human suffering, hospital costs, and lost productivity is high. Cirrhosis is more common in men than in women.[51]

Established cirrhosis has a 10-year mortality of 34–66%, largely dependent on the cause of the cirrhosis; alcoholic cirrhosis has a worse prognosis than primary biliary cirrhosis and cirrhosis due to hepatitis. The risk of death due to all causes is increased twelvefold; if one excludes the direct consequences of the liver disease, there is still a fivefold increased risk of death in all disease categories.[52]


The word "cirrhosis" is a neologism derived from Greek kirrhós meaning "yellowish, tawny" (the orange-yellow colour of the diseased liver) and the suffix -osis, i.e. "condition" in medical terminology. While the clinical entity was known before, it was René Laennec who gave it this name (in the same 1819 work in which he also described the stethoscope).[53]


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