Author(s): Starr SP, Raines D
Cirrhosis is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States. It accounted for 29,165 deaths in 2007, with a mortality rate of 9.7 per 100,000 persons. Alcohol abuse and viral hepatitis are the most common causes of cirrhosis, although nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is emerging as an increasingly important cause. Primary care physicians share responsibility with specialists in managing the most common complications of the disease, screening for hepatocellular carcinoma, and preparing patients for referral to a transplant center. Patients with cirrhosis should be screened for hepatocellular carcinoma with imaging studies every six to 12 months. Causes of hepatic encephalopathy include constipation, infection, gastrointestinal bleeding, certain medications, electrolyte imbalances, and noncompliance with medical therapy. These should be sought and managed before instituting the use of lactulose or rifaximin, which is aimed at reducing serum ammonia levels. Ascites should be treated initially with salt restriction and diuresis. Patients with acute episodes of gastrointestinal bleeding should be monitored in an intensive care unit, and should have endoscopy performed within 24 hours. Physicians should also be vigilant for spontaneous bacterial peritonitis. Treating alcohol abuse, screening for viral hepatitis, and controlling risk factors for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease are mechanisms by which the primary care physician can reduce the incidence of cirrhosis.