A damaged liver affects almost every bodily process, including the functions of the digestive, hormonal, and circulatory systems. Decompensated cirrhosis increases the risk of serious and potentially life-threatening complications. (Once decompensation occurs, mortality rates without liver transplantation can be as high as 85% within 5 years.) The most serious complications are those associated with portal hypertension (increased pressure in the portal vein that carries blood from the intestine to the liver). They include:
- Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen)
- Variceal hemorrhage (bleeding in the upper stomach and esophagus from ruptured blood vessels)
- Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis is a form of peritonitis (inflammation of the membrane that lines the abdomen), which is associated with ascites. Other bacterial infections are also a common complication of cirrhosis.
- Hepatic encephalopathy (brain dysfunction). Impaired brain function occurs when the liver cannot detoxify harmful substances, and can lead to coma.
Liver cancer is a serious long-term risk with cirrhosis. Other complications also occur.
Ascites is fluid buildup in the abdominal cavity. It is uncomfortable and can impair breathing and other functions. Ascites is caused by a combination of portal hypertension (high pressure in the blood vessels of the liver) and low albumin levels. Albumin is a protein produced by the liver. Although ascites itself is not fatal, it is a marker for severe progression.
Hepatorenal syndrome occurs if the kidneys drastically reduce their own blood flow in response to the altered blood flow in the liver. It is a life-threatening complication of late-stage liver disease that occurs in patients with ascites. Symptoms include dark colored urine and a reduction in volume, yellowish skin, abdominal swelling, mental changes (such as delirium and confusion), jerking or coarse muscle movement, nausea, and vomiting.
One of the most serious consequences of portal hypertension is the development of varices, veins that enlarge to provide an alternative pathway for blood diverted from the liver. In most patients, they form in the esophagus. They can also form in the upper stomach. Varices pose a high risk for rupture and bleeding because they are thin-walled, twisted, and subject to high pressure. Variceal intestinal bleeding is a life-threatening event. Symptoms include vomiting blood or black and tarry stools.
Spontaneous Bacterial Peritonitis
Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis is a life-threatening bacterial infection of the ascitic fluid. The main symptoms include confusion and altered mental status, fever, chills, and abdominal pain.
Review Date: 11/04/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.