Cirrhosis in Children | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of cirrhosis in children?

Cirrhosis often produces no symptoms early on, though a child with cirrhosis may have symptoms related to the underlying medical condition causing the liver damage. As cirrhosis progresses, a child may have the following symptoms:

  • loss of appetite
  • nausea or vomiting
  • weight loss or difficulty gaining weight
  • weakness
  • abdominal pain or swelling
  • spider-like blood vessels on the skin

With time, cirrhosis may also lead to additional serious problems, including:

  • yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes, called jaundice
  • bruising or bleeding easily or nosebleeds
  • swelling of the legs or abdomen from built-up fluid - in the legs this fluid buildup is called edema; in the abdomen it is called ascites
  • confusion or difficulty thinking (encephalopathy) caused by buildup of waste products from food in the bloodstream
  • kidney failure

Because blood cannot flow as easily through a liver with cirrhosis, the pressure in the vein that enters the liver, called the portal vein, may increase. This condition is called portal hypertension and it can cause its own symptoms and complications. The increased blood pressure in the portal vein can also affect how blood circulates in the lungs, causing:

  • hepatopulmonary syndrome, a rare condition that interferes with the lungs' ability to supply oxygen to the rest of the body
  • esophageal varices, enlarged or swollen veins on the lining of the tube that connects the throat to the stomach

What causes cirrhosis in children?

The liver has a great capacity to heal itself, but long-term illness or injury can scar the liver.

As liver damage continues, hard scar tissue gradually replaces the liver's healthy tissue and partially blocks blood circulation through the liver. The organ may shrink and take on a shriveled appearance.

Eventually the soft, smooth surface of the liver becomes covered in scars.

The following conditions can lead to cirrhosis in children:

  • biliary atresia, a blockage of the ducts that allow bile to pass from the liver to the gallbladder and intestines
  • autoimmune hepatitis, a disorder of the immune system that causes immune cells attack the liver as if it were an infection
  • chronic viral hepatitis or hepatitis C, which cause the liver to swell and can encourage scar tissue to form
  • cystic fibrosis, an inherited chronic disease that clogs the liver and other organs with thick mucus and can lead to scarring
  • alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic disease that prevents the liver from building a protein it normally releases into the bloodstream
  • primary sclerosing cholangitis, an acquired condition that causes inflammation and narrowing of the bile ducts around the liver
  • Wilson disease, an uncommon inherited disorder in which the body cannot rid itself of excess copper found in many foods and allows copper to build up in the liver
  • fatty liver disease, a buildup of fat in the liver that can lead to scarring
  • some congenital (inherited) heart defects

While overconsumption of alcohol is the most common cause of cirrhosis in adults, no amount of alcohol consumption by either parent, even during pregnancy, can cause a child to develop cirrhosis.