Treatments and drugs

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Treatment for cirrhosis depends on the cause and extent of your liver damage. The goals of treatment are to slow the progression of scar tissue in the liver and to prevent or treat symptoms and complications of cirrhosis. You may need to be hospitalized if you have severe liver damage.

Treatment for the underlying cause of cirrhosis

In early cirrhosis, it may be possible to minimize damage to the liver by treating the underlying cause. The options include:

  • Treatment for alcohol dependency. People with cirrhosis caused by alcohol abuse should try to stop drinking. If stopping alcohol use is difficult, your doctor may recommend a treatment program for alcohol addiction.
  • Weight loss. People with cirrhosis caused by nonalcoholic fatty liver disease may become healthier if they lose weight and control their blood sugar levels.
  • Medications to control hepatitis. Medications may control damage to liver cells caused by hepatitis B or C.
  • Medications to control other causes and symptoms of cirrhosis. Medications may slow the progression of certain types of liver cirrhosis. For example, people with primary biliary cirrhosis that is diagnosed and treated early may never experience symptoms.

Other medications can relieve certain symptoms, such as itching, fatigue and pain. Nutritional supplements may be prescribed to counter malnutrition associated with cirrhosis and to prevent osteoporosis (weak bones).

Treatment for complications of cirrhosis

Your doctor will work to treat any complications of cirrhosis, including:

  • Excess fluid in your body. Edema or ascites may be managed with a low-sodium diet and medication to prevent fluid buildup in the body. More severe fluid buildup may require procedures to drain the fluid or surgery to relieve pressure.
  • Portal hypertension. Blood pressure medications may control increased pressure in the veins that supply the liver (portal hypertension) and prevent severe bleeding. Your doctor will perform an upper endoscopy at regular intervals to look for enlarged veins in the esophagus or stomach (varices) that may bleed.

    If you develop varices, you likely will need medication to reduce the risk of bleeding. If you are not able to tolerate medication and have signs that the varices are bleeding or are likely to bleed, you may need a procedure (band ligation) to stop the bleeding. In severe cases, you may need a small tube — a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS) — placed in your vein to reduce blood pressure in your liver.

  • Infections. You may receive antibiotics or other treatments for infections. Your doctor also is likely to recommend vaccinations for influenza, pneumonia and hepatitis.
  • Increased liver cancer risk. Your doctor will likely recommend periodic blood tests and ultrasound exams to look for signs of liver cancer.
  • Hepatic encephalopathy. You may be prescribed medications to help reduce the buildup of toxins in your blood due to poor liver function.

Liver transplant surgery

In advanced cases of cirrhosis, when the liver ceases to function, a liver transplant may be the only treatment option. A liver transplant is a procedure to replace your liver with a healthy liver from a deceased donor or with part of a liver from a living donor. Cirrhosis is the most common reason for a liver transplant.

Extensive testing is needed before a liver transplant to ensure that a candidate is in good enough health to have the transplant operation. Additionally, transplant centers typically require some period of abstinence from alcohol, often at least six months, before transplantation for people with alcohol-related liver disease.

Aug. 16, 2014

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