Liver Disease: 6 Things to Know

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  • Your liver has many functions, including processing your food into energy and nutrients, as well as helping to remove toxins from your blood. Liver damage, caused by scarring of the liver, prevents proper functioning. Left untreated, it can lead to liver failure, which is a life-threatening condition. The good news is when the condition is caught early, liver disease treatment can be as simple as a few lifestyle changes. With those modifications, there’s a good chance your liver will be able to heal itself if the disease hasn’t progressed too far.

  • 1
    Alcohol abuse is a leading cause of liver disease, but it’s far from the only one.
    Man drinking pint of beer

    Drinking too much alcohol is the No. 1 cause of cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) in the United States. The scar tissue prevents the liver from working like it should, which leads to liver disease if it isn’t treated. Infections caused by parasites or viruses—such as hepatitis A, B, or C—are also top causes of liver disease. Liver cancer and bile duct cancer can cause liver disease, as can fat building up in the liver, which often results from diabetes or obesity. Genetics as well as autoimmune disorders can also play a role.

  • 2
    Liver disease can present many different signs and symptoms—or none at all.

    In the earliest stages of liver disease, you might not feel any pain or notice any symptoms at all because sometimes it’s not until extensive scar tissue forms that liver disease symptoms show up. Some of the most common signs of liver disease are urine that’s darker than usual or abnormal stool, either pale-colored, tar-colored, or bloody. You also might notice you bleed or bruise more easily, you develop spider-like blood vessels, your legs or ankles swell, you feel very itchy, or you have jaundice, which is the yellowing of your skin and eyes.

  • 3
    Many liver disease risk factors are within your control, so be aware of what they are.

    People who drink too much are more likely to develop liver disease than those who drink in moderation. Other risk factors include sharing needles to inject drugs, getting tattoos or piercings in an unclean environment, having unprotected sex, and coming into contact with other people’s blood or other bodily fluids. If you are obese or have diabetes, you’re more likely to develop liver disease. People who had a blood transfusion before 1992 might have contracted hepatitis C, which is a risk factor for liver disease. Those who have high levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) in their blood also have a higher risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

  • 4
    If you have persistent symptoms, don’t put off visiting your doctor or a hepatologist.
    man holding stomach

    When the disease is caught in the early stages, it’s likely your liver can heal itself and have little or no permanent damage. If you notice symptoms of liver disease that won’t go away, make an appointment with your doctor or a hepatologist, a liver specialist. He or she may order blood tests, imaging tests or a biopsy to help make a diagnosis. Several blood tests can detect problems with your liver function or other problems, and they can also find genetic conditions that could result in liver disease. Imaging tests such as an MRI, CT scan, or ultrasound can reveal damage to your liver. These tests can help a hepatologist make a diagnosis and determine the best course of treatment.

  • 5
    Your liver disease treatment options will depend on what caused the condition.

    If alcohol abuse has caused the liver disease, your doctor will probably recommend stopping drinking as the best course of action. Depending on other medical conditions you have, lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, may reverse your liver damage. To treat an infection that causes liver damage, you may need medication. In other cases, you may need surgery. In any case, a hepatologist will want to monitor your liver function closely to watch for signs of worsening liver disease. If your liver has suffered extreme scarring, called cirrhosis, it might not be able to heal itself and can lead to liver failure, which is a life-threatening condition. If your liver has lost all function, you likely will need a transplant.

  • 6
    Ultimately, the best course of action is taking steps to prevent liver disease in the first place.
    man's hands breaking cigarette

    Your lifestyle choices may be the easiest way to prevent liver disease. First and foremost, drink alcohol responsibly. Heavy or binge drinking increases your risk for liver disease, and you should never mix alcohol with drugs or medications. Effective vaccines are available to protect children and adults from the hepatitis A and hepatitis B viruses. Other lifestyle choices include maintaining a healthy weight, stopping smoking, using a condom during sex, not injecting drugs or sharing needles, and making sure to choose a clean place to get tattoos or piercings. Also be careful about taking prescription and nonprescription medications. An overdose of a painkiller such as acetaminophen can cause liver damage.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Sep 4
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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