Liver Inflammation

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What is liver inflammation?

Liver inflammation is a reaction that occurs when liver cells are attacked by a disease-causing microbe or substance. The liver is an organ in the digestive system that assists the digestive process and carries out many other essential functions. These functions include producing bile to help break down food into energy; creating essential substances, such as hormones; cleaning toxins from the blood, including those from medication, alcohol and drugs; and controlling fat storage and cholesterol production and release.

The word hepatitis refers to liver inflammation. Most forms of hepatitis result from viral infection, although in some cases it is caused by an autoimmune disorder, in which the body’s immune system attacks liver cells because it cannot tell the difference between harmful invaders and healthy liver tissue. Damage to the liver from alcohol, toxins, and certain drugs can also result in inflammation. Some inherited diseases can cause inflammation and hepatitis, along with prolonged obstruction of bile flow. Some forms of liver inflammation produce mild symptoms, while others can be serious or life threatening.

Several types of viral hepatitis are known, the most common of which are designated as hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. Depending on the type, viral hepatitis can be spread through food or water contaminated by feces from an infected person; contact with infected blood through infected needles or contaminated blood transfusions; through sexual contact with an infected person; or passed from mother to child during childbirth.

The severity, treatment and outcome of liver inflammation depend largely on the type of hepatitis you have. The initial symptoms of inflammation are similar to flu, but with the addition of jaundice, a yellowish discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes. Left untreated, liver inflammation will begin to interfere with liver function and may progress to end-stage liver disease and liver failure. The liver damage caused by any inflammation is worsened by drinking alcohol. Fortunately, vaccines have been developed to protect against hepatitis A and B, two common causes of liver inflammation.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms associated with complications of liver inflammation, such as confusion, hallucinations, extreme fatigue, fainting, fever (especially if combined with a swollen abdomen), vomiting blood, or severe mood changes (especially agitation).

Seek prompt medical care if you experience any of the following symptoms, including yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes (jaundice); abdominal pain; nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; constant weakness or dizziness; difficulty thinking or understanding; and low-grade fever. Also seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for hepatitis but your symptoms persist or recur.

What are the symptoms of liver inflammation?

Symptoms of liver inflammation can involve a variety of body systems, with effects ranging from decreased energy level to skin irritation to abdominal and gastrointestinal symptoms. You should contact your health care provider if you have any of these symptoms, and seek immediate attention for symptoms associated with more serious forms of the disease.

Common symptoms of liver inflammation

There are various types of liver inflammation, and symptoms vary depending on the type. At times, any of these symptoms can be severe:

  • Abdominal swelling, distention or bloating

  • Diarrhea

  • Discolored urine and stool

  • Fatigue

  • Headache

  • Itchy skin

  • Joint pain

  • Loss of appetite

  • Low-grade fever

  • Malaise and lethargy

  • Nausea with or without vomiting

  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, liver inflammation can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms:

What causes liver inflammation?

Liver inflammation has various causes, depending on the type. Viral infections are a common cause, along with toxic exposures and some inherited conditions.

Causes of liver inflammation

Liver inflammation may be caused by the following:

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (an inherited condition that predisposes to liver and lung damage)

  • Autoimmune reaction

  • Decreased blood flow to the liver

  • Drugs or toxins

  • Hemochromatosis (disorder characterized by excess iron in the body)

  • Obstructive jaundice

  • Viral infection

  • Wilson’s disease (disorder leading to excess copper deposition in the body)

What are the risk factors for liver inflammation?

A number of risk factors increase the risk of developing liver inflammation. Not all people with risk factors will get liver inflammation. Although these risk factors will vary depending on the type of hepatitis, risk factors for liver inflammation include:

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Consumption of contaminated water or food

  • Contact with utensils, bedding, clothing, or personal items used by someone infected with hepatitis

  • Diseases that require multiple blood transfusions

  • Exposure to blood or body fluids of an infected person

  • Exposure to needles, including tattoo needles, used by an infected person

  • Sexual contact with someone infected with hepatitis

  • Travel to places with contaminated water or poor sanitation practices

Reducing your risk of hepatitis

You may be able to lower your risk of hepatitis by:

  • Avoiding contact with blood or body fluids of an infected person

  • Avoiding contact with used needles

  • Avoiding contact with utensils, bedding, clothing or personal items used by someone infected with hepatitis

  • Boiling any water that might be contaminated before drinking it or using it to brush your teeth

  • Getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and B

  • Limiting travel in places with sanitation deficiencies

How is liver inflammation treated?

Treatment of hepatitis varies depending on the type of hepatitis. If you are diagnosed with any type of hepatitis, you should stop drinking alcohol and discontinue use of drugs that may damage the liver, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), and drugs that increase your risk of bleeding, such as aspirin.

Beyond that, some types of hepatitis are treated only with general supportive measures, such as getting rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Many antiviral drugs have been developed, and new ones continue to be approved, for the treatment of viral hepatitis. The choice of drug or drugs depends on the type of viral hepatitis being treated, and, in some cases, the genotype (the specific DNA or RNA sequence of the virus.

Untreated or poorly controlled liver inflammations can progress to end-stage liver disease or liver failure. Treatment for liver failure is liver transplant.

What you can do to improve viral forms of liver inflammation

In addition to following your specific treatment plan carefully, you can also help minimize the effects of your symptoms and reduce transmission of viral hepatitis to other people by:

  • Being careful not to prepare or handle food to be eaten by others if you have hepatitis A or E until there is evidence you are not infectious

  • Carefully cleaning up any blood spills and covering all cuts and open sores

  • Getting plenty of rest to minimize fatigue

  • If you are pregnant, informing your physician if you are infected or are not a carrier

  • Keeping sexual partners informed if you have a type of hepatitis that is spread by sexual contact

  • Maintaining a well-balanced diet

  • Monitoring liver function yearly, along with having periodic ultrasound and alpha-fetoprotein blood tests, if recommended for your type of hepatitis

  • Practicing strategies your health care provider will teach you to protect household members and sexual partners

  • Stopping or severely limiting alcohol consumption to protect your liver

What are the potential complications of liver inflammation?

Complications of untreated or poorly controlled liver inflammation can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications can include:

  • Cirrhosis (scarring of the liver that causes severe dysfunction)

  • Cryoglobulinemia (presence of abnormal proteins in the blood that can cause inflammation of the blood vessels)

  • Fibrosis of the liver (development of fibrous tissues that interfere with liver function)

  • Hepatic encephalopathy (brain disorder caused by liver disease)

  • Liver cancer

  • Liver failure

  • Portal hypertension (increased blood pressure in the veins around the liver, stomach, and esophagus)

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 16
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.
  1. Hepatitis. American Gastroenterological Association.
  2. Viral hepatitis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.