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bleeding oesophageal varices

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Bleeding esophageal varices (varicose veins)

Alternative Names
oesophageal variceal rupture, oesophageal variceal bleeding, oesophageal variceal haemorrhage

Oesophageal varices are unusually widened veins around the oesophagus. The oesophagus is the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. These veins may sometimes bleed.

What is going on in the body?
Oesophageal varices usually form because of a serious liver disease called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis of the liver can interfere with blood circulation. This leads to increased pressure in the veins around the oesophagus. Over time, these veins widen due to the pressure. When the walls of the veins get stretched too much, the veins can break and allow blood to enter the oesophagus.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
Symptoms often happen quite suddenly and include:
  • coughing up or vomiting up blood
  • black, tarry stools due to the bleeding in the gut
  • light-headedness from loss of blood
  • passing out from loss of blood
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
The main cause of bleeding oesophageal varices is cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis normally occurs because of long-term alcohol abuse. It can also be caused by hepatitis, a viral infection of the liver.

What can be done to prevent the condition?
There are several ways to avoid bleeding oesophageal varices. They can be prevented by avoiding liver diseases that are caused by long-term alcohol abuse and viral hepatitis. Many cases of hepatitis can be prevented by:
  • not using intravenous drugs
  • following safer sex practices, such as condom use
  • being vaccinated for hepatitis B
How is the condition diagnosed?
When an episode of bleeding occurs in the gut, a procedure called endoscopy is often done. A small tube, called an endoscope, is placed through the mouth and into the oesophagus and stomach. The tube has a light and a camera on the end of it. This allows the doctor to see the inside of the gut to find the cause of bleeding.

What are the long-term effects of the condition?
A person with oesophageal varices often has serious medical problems due to liver disease. The outcome is generally poor unless a liver transplant is performed. Even after treatment, rebleeding from oesophageal varices is common and may lead to death.

What are the risks to others?
There are generally no risks to others unless the person has hepatitis. Hepatitis may be passed on to others through unprotected sex. It may also be passed on by sharing drug needles.

What are the treatments for the condition?
A person with bleeding oesophageal varices can lose a lot of blood. Blood transfusions may be required. Other fluids may need to be replaced through an intravenous line.

endoscopy is done to make sure that varices are the cause of the bleeding. When they are seen, varices can often be treated right away through the endoscope. Tiny instruments can be passed through the tube and used to stop the bleeding.

Sometimes medications are given to cause the varices to shrink. In severe cases, surgery or other procedures may be required to stop the bleeding or to relieve pressure on the swollen varices. Liver transplantation is generally the only way to cure oesophageal varices.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
endoscopy and surgery can cause more bleeding, infection, and sometimes even death. Medications used for variceal bleeding may cause salt imbalances, allergic reactions, low blood pressure, or other side effects. Blood transfusions may cause allergic reactions or infections.

What happens after treatment for the condition?
If the bleeding stops for more than 1 or 2 days and the person recovers, he or she can usually go home from the hospital.

How is the condition monitored?
A person with oesophageal varices usually requires lifelong monitoring for the varices and liver problems. Full blood counts (FBCs), blood pressure, and the heart rate are followed to make sure the bleeding has stopped. Liver function tests and physical examination may be used to monitor the condition of the liver. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the doctor.

Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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