Living with cirrhosis: risk factors, life expectancy and tips for caregivers.

Cirrhosis is a serious chronic progressive disease that affects the liver.

The on-going disease destroys the liver cells called hepatocytes.

As the disease progresses, the liver becomes scarred. And this scarring ultimately leads to liver dysfunction.

Although cirrhosis can be managed and slowed down, it is a serious illness that can lead to death.

Living with cirrhosis: what causes cirrhosis?

Most people associate cirrhosis with alcoholism.

And while this is a major risk factor for the disease, it’s not the only reason a person might have cirrhosis.

Other causes of cirrhosis include:

  • As a complication of a liver infection (hepatitis)
  • Exposure to hepatoxins (or chemicals that are toxic to the liver other than alcohol)
  • Severe, right-sided heart failure which results in an enlarged and fluid-filled liver

Thus if you have a loved one who has heart disease or has had hepatitis in the past, these could serve as risk factors for cirrhosis too.

How long can you live with cirrhosis of the liver?

Surviving cirrhosis depends on multiple factors including age, the overall health of the person and the cause of cirrhosis.

Thus how long a person can live with cirrhosis will differ from one person to the next.

There are four stages of cirrhosis.

The four stages of cirrhosis

  • During stage 1, patients lack energy and constantly feel tired. The liver is inflamed at this point and the individual may have a swollen abdomen. Cirrhosis can be reversed at this stage if a doctor detects it early and the patient makes the right lifestyle changes.
  • During stage 2 of cirrhosis, the pressure in the veins surrounding the liver begin to rise. This happens because of an obstruction in blood flow to the liver. This is called portal hypertension. With reduced blood flow and increasing scar tissue, cirrhosis could be slowed at this stage but it may not work.
  • Ascites – or fluid accumulation in the belly area – develops during stage 3 of cirrhosis. At this point, the veins are congested and so a lot of fluid gets trapped in the abdomen. More scar tissue develops in the liver. Other symptoms like itchiness, lack of sleep and weight loss happen at this stage. Jaundice also happens at this stage. Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and tissues that happens because the liver can no longer break down a substance called bilirubin. At stage 3, cirrhosis is irreversible. And at this point, the individual becomes a candidate for a liver transplant.
  • The symptoms associated with stage 3 cirrhosis are similar to stage 4. During the final stages of cirrhosis of the liver, confusion, personality changes and hand/muscle tremors become common.

What can you do as a caregiver?

At stages 1 and 2 of cirrhosis, we can still do a lot to slow down the disease.

You can help your loved one make lifestyle changes like:

  • Quitting alcohol
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a balanced diet of meals
  • Restricting sodium and fluid intake (especially when ascites starts)
  • Following medication regimen that is prescribed by a qualified medical provider
  • Quitting opioid and narcotic intake
  • And even in following medication regimen, make sure you are reading labels to ensure medication will not harm your loved one’s liver.

During stages 3 and 4, cirrhosis is not reversible.

At this point, you can mainly provide supportive care to your loved one as they wait to get a liver transplant.

  • For a loved one who is confused, provide a safe environment so they don’t hurt themselves.
  • Elevate the head of the bed while they sleep. This reduces shortness of breath.
  • Monitoring your loved one’s level of consciousness.

During these stages, it might be time to consider working with professional caregivers so that your loved living with cirrhosis can get the proper care they need.