Cirrhosis in Children

What is cirrhosis in children?

Cirrhosis is a progressive liver disease in which scar tissue replaces soft, healthy liver tissue. As scar tissue builds up, the liver becomes hard and slowly cuts off blood circulation in the liver. This interferes with the liver's many important functions, including the ability to process nutrients and filter toxins. In extreme cases, the liver stops working and the child will need a liver transplant.

Although a healthy liver has a remarkable ability to repair itself, chronic liver disease can lead to cirrhosis. In very young children, cirrhosis is most often caused by a genetic (inherited) liver problem such as biliary atresia. In older children, conditions such as Wilson disease and autoimmune hepatitis can cause cirrhosis.

While cirrhosis in adults is often caused by heavy alcohol consumption, a mother or father's drinking cannot cause cirrhosis in a child.

Cirrhosis is the most severe stage of liver scarring. If left untreated, cirrhosis can lead to serious complications such as:

Children with cirrhosis bruise and bleed easily and are more susceptible to infection than other children.

What is the liver and what does it do?

The liver is the second largest organ in the body, located in the abdominal cavity. The liver helps the body in many ways:

  • produces proteins that allow blood to clot normally, transport oxygen and support the immune system
  • produces bile, a substance that helps digest food
  • stores extra nutrients
  • helps clean the bloodstream of harmful substances
  • helps control blood sugar and cholesterol levels

Long-term impact of cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is a chronic condition. Children with cirrhosis will need ongoing medical monitoring and treatment for the rest of their lives.

How we care for cirrhosis

The physicians, nurses, and staff in the Center for Childhood Liver Disease at Boston Children’s Hospital have a deep understanding of the complexities and complications of cirrhosis. We have one of the few dedicated teams of specialists who are board-certified in Pediatric Hepatology and Transplant and offer comprehensive resources to help families manage cirrhosis and plan for their child’s eventual transition to adult care.

Our areas of innovation for cirrhosis

Doctors rely on biopsies to diagnose and monitor cirrhosis and other forms of liver disease. A group of physicians and researchers at Boston Children’s is working on an alternative, non-invasive method to determine the amount of scar tissue present in a child’s liver. Through a combination of blood tests and ultrasound technology, it may be possible to measure the stiffness of the liver and diagnose cirrhosis with a quick, painless exam. In the future, this research could reduce the number of biopsies needed to effectively monitor and manage liver disease.