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.
Mental impairment is a common event in advanced cirrhosis. In severe cases, the disease causes encephalopathy (impaired brain function), with mental symptoms that range from confusion to coma and death. Hepatic encephalopathy is caused by a buildup in the blood of harmful intestinal toxins, particularly ammonia, which then accumulate in the brain. Encephalopathy can be triggered by many different conditions including internal bleeding, infection, constipation, and dehydration.
Early symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy include forgetfulness, unresponsiveness, and trouble concentrating. Sudden changes in the patient's mental state, including agitation or confusion, may indicate an emergency condition. Other symptoms include bad fruity-smelling breath and tremor. Late-stage symptoms of encephalopathy are stupor and eventually coma.
People with cirrhosis have an increased risk for hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer. Hepatitis B and C, alcoholism, hemochromatosis, and primary biliary cirrhosis -- all causes of cirrhosis -- are some of the major risk factors for liver cancer. Cirrhosis due to hepatitis C is the leading cause of hepatocellular carcinoma, while cirrhosis due to hepatitis B is the leading cause of deaths related to liver cancer.
Kidney Failure. Portal hypertension and spontaneous bacterial peritonitis can cause several secondary complications, including kidney failure. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) -- such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin -- can also cause kidney failure in patients with cirrhosis.
Osteoporosis. Many patients with cirrhosis develop osteoporosis, a bone-thinning disease. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #18: Osteoporosis.]
Osteoporosis is a condition characterized by progressive loss of bone density, thinning of bone tissue, and increased vulnerability to fractures. Osteoporosis may result from disease, dietary or hormonal deficiency, or advanced age. Regular exercise and vitamin and mineral supplements may reduce and even reverse loss of bone density.
Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes. Cirrhosis causes insulin resistance, a primary feature in type 2 diabetes. As insulin resistance progresses, it causes excess glucose to buildup in the blood, which leads to type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is also a risk factor for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, one of the causes of cirrhosis. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #60: Diabetes type 2.]
Heart Problems. Cirrhosis may increase the risk for heart failure and other cardiovascular complications.