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 stop drinking. If you have cirrhosis, it is essential to stop drinking since any amount of alcohol is toxic to the liver. 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. It is important to maintain adequate protein intake while attempting weight loss in the setting of cirrhosis.
- Medications to control hepatitis. Medications may limit further damage to liver cells caused by hepatitis B or C through specific treatment of these viruses.
- Medications to control other causes and symptoms of cirrhosis. Medications may slow the progression of certain types of liver cirrhosis. For example, for people with primary biliary cirrhosis (now known as primary biliary cholangitis) that is diagnosed early, medication may significantly delay progression to cirrhosis.
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 weak bones (osteoporosis).
Treatment for complications of cirrhosis
Your doctor will work to treat any complications of cirrhosis, including:
- Excess fluid in your body. A low-sodium diet and medication to prevent fluid buildup in the body may help control ascites and swelling. More-severe fluid buildup may require procedures to drain the fluid or other interventions to relieve pressure. At times, a small tube — a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS) — is placed in the vein within the liver to reduce blood pressure in your liver and slow the rate of fluid accumulation.
Portal hypertension. Certain 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 or reduce the risk of further bleeding. In severe cases, a TIPS can be placed in the vein within the liver to reduce blood pressure in your liver and to prevent further bleeding.
- 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 recommend blood tests and ultrasound exams every six months to look for signs of liver cancer.
- Hepatic encephalopathy. You may be prescribed medications to help prevent the buildup of toxins in your blood due to poor liver function.
In advanced cases of cirrhosis, when the liver ceases to function, a liver transplant may be the only treatment option. People usually need to consider this option when they develop symptoms from cirrhosis, such as jaundice, significant fluid retention (ascites), bleeding varices, hepatic encephalopathy, kidney dysfunction, or liver cancer. A liver transplant replaces 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.
Candidates for liver transplant undergo extensive testing to determine whether they are healthy enough to have a good outcome following surgery. Additionally, transplant centers typically require some period of abstinence alcohol for people with alcohol-related liver disease before they can receive transplants.
Potential future treatments
Scientists are working to expand current treatments for cirrhosis, but success has been limited. Because cirrhosis has numerous causes and complications, there are many potential avenues of approach. A combination of increased screening, lifestyle changes and new medications may improve outcomes for people with liver damage, if started early.
It may be possible in the future to decrease or even reverse the fibrosis that leads to cirrhosis depending on the cause of fibrosis. Some people who received successful hepatitis C treatment or hepatitis B medications may have improvement in their fibrosis.
A number of alternative medicines have been used to treat liver diseases. Milk thistle (silymarin) is the most widely used and best studied. Other herbs used include licorice root (glycyrrhiza), schisandra and astragalus. However, there is not enough evidence of benefit from clinical trials to recommend the use of any herbal products to treat liver cirrhosis. In addition, herbal medications represent an increasing percentage of reported cases of drug-induced liver injury. Talk with your doctor if you're interested in trying alternative medicine to help you cope with cirrhosis.