Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver caused by continuous long-term liver damage. Scar tissue replaces healthy tissue in the liver and prevents the liver working properly.

The damage caused by cirrhosis can't be reversed and can eventually become so extensive that your liver stops functioning. This is called liver failure.

Cirrhosis can be fatal if the liver fails. However, it usually takes years for the condition to reach this stage and treatment can help slow its progression.

Each year around 4,000 people in the UK die from cirrhosis, and 700 people with the condition need a liver transplant to survive.

Signs and symptoms

There are usually few symptoms in the early stages of cirrhosis. However, as your liver loses its ability to function properly, you're likely to experience a loss of appetite, nausea and itchy skin.

Symptoms in the later stages can include jaundice, vomiting blood, dark, tarry-looking stools, and a build-up of fluid in the legs (oedema) and abdomen (ascites).

Read more about the symptoms of cirrhosis.

When to see your GP

As cirrhosis doesn't have many obvious symptoms in the early stages, it's often picked up during tests for an unrelated illness.

See your GP if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • fever and shivering
  • shortness of breath 
  • vomiting blood
  • very dark or black, tarry stools (faeces)
  • periods of confusion or drowsiness

Read more about diagnosing cirrhosis.

What causes cirrhosis?

In the UK, the most common causes of cirrhosis are:

  • drinking too much alcohol (alcohol misuse) over many years
  • being infected with the hepatitis C virus for a long time
  • a condition called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which causes excess fat to build up in the liver

NASH is on the rise in the UK as a result of increasing levels of obesity and reduced physical activity. It's likely it will overtake alcohol and hepatitis C as the most common cause of cirrhosis.

Less common causes of cirrhosis include hepatitis B infection and inherited liver diseases, such as haemochromatosis.

Read more about the causes of cirrhosis.

Treating cirrhosis

There's currently no cure for cirrhosis. However, it's possible to manage the symptoms and any complications, and slow its progression.

Treating underlying conditions that may be the cause, such as using anti-viral medication to treat a hepatitis C infection, can also stop cirrhosis getting worse.

You may be advised to cut down on or stop drinking alcohol, or lose weight if you're overweight. A wide range of alcohol support services are available.

In its more advanced stages, the scarring caused by cirrhosis can make your liver stop functioning. In this case, a liver transplant is the only treatment option.

Read more about treating cirrhosis.

Preventing cirrhosis

Not exceeding the recommended limits for alcohol consumption is the best way of preventing alcohol-related cirrhosis.

It's advised that:

  • men and women do not regularly drink more than 14 units a week
  • you spread your drinking over three days or more if you drink as much as 14 units a week

Read more about alcohol units.

Hepatitis B and C are infections you can get by having unprotected sex or sharing needles to inject drugs.

Using a condom during sex and not injecting drugs will reduce your risk of developing hepatitis B and C.

A vaccine for hepatitis B is available, but there's currently no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Read more about preventing cirrhosis.

The liver

The liver is an important organ that carries out hundreds of jobs vital for sustaining life.

For example, the liver:

  • stores glycogen, a carbohydrate that produces short-term energy
  • makes bile, which helps digest fats
  • makes substances that clot the blood
  • processes and removes any alcohol, toxins or drugs

Your liver is very tough. It will keep working even if badly damaged, and can continue to repair itself until it's severely damaged.

Page last reviewed: 15/04/2015

Next review due: 29/04/2017