Liver Symptoms

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What are the signs of liver problems?

Liver symptoms describe a wide range of symptoms that are caused by disorders of or injury to the liver. 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.

Symptoms may arise from inflammation, infection, trauma, or toxic injury, such as that caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Because one of the liver’s important functions is clearing toxins from the bloodstream, the liver is highly exposed to contact with alcohol, drugs, and other toxic substances that can damage it. Specific conditions that can cause liver symptoms include hepatitis (liver inflammation often caused by viral infection), cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver abscess, liver cancer, and hemochromatosis (buildup of excess iron in body tissues).

Liver symptoms commonly include abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, enlarged liver, fatty liver, and yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice). Because liver symptoms can be caused by many different conditions, some of which are serious, it is important for you to contact your health care provider to determine the underlying cause.

Liver symptoms may be associated with serious conditions. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms associated with complications of liver disorders, including problems with memory, confusion, agitation, change in level of consciousness or alertness, change in mental status, extreme fatigue, fainting, fever (especially if combined with a swollen abdomen, or vomiting blood.

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 (especially in the right upper abdomen), nausea with or without vomiting, clay-colored stools, dark urine, fever or chills, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, or weakness. Also seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for a liver disorder but have symptoms that persist, recur, or cause you concern.

What other symptoms might occur with liver symptoms?

Liver symptoms may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Common liver and gastrointestinal symptoms

Symptoms that frequently affect the liver and gastrointestinal tract include the following:

  • Abdominal pain (especially in the right upper part of the abdomen, although it may also be more widespread)

  • Abdominal swelling, distention or bloating

  • Diarrhea

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyeballs)

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea with or without vomiting

  • Pale or clay-colored stools

Other symptoms that may occur along with liver symptoms

Liver symptoms may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

  • Dark urine

  • Easy bleeding or bruising

  • Fatigue

  • Fever and chills

  • Headache

  • Itchy skin

  • Joint pain

  • Spider angiomas (red skin lesion consisting of small blood vessels that spread out in a pattern that resembles a spider web)

  • Unexplained weight loss

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, liver symptoms may indicate a life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Jerky movements

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or inability to breathe, labored breathing, wheezing, or choking

  • Severe abdominal pain

  • Vomiting blood or black material (resembling coffee grounds)

What causes liver symptoms?

Major causes of liver symptoms include infectious disorders and scarring, or cirrhosis, of the liver. Other leading causes of liver symptoms are nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (more serious type of nonalcoholic fatty liver), hemochromatosis (buildup of excess iron), and liver cancer.

Infectious causes of liver symptoms

Liver symptoms may be caused by infections, as in the following disorders:

Other causes of liver symptoms

Liver symptoms can also be caused by other disorders or trauma including:

  • Abdominal trauma

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Autoimmune disease (disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue)

  • Exposure to toxic substances or certain drugs

  • Glycogen storage disease (inherited disorder that causes liver enlargement)

  • Hemochromatosis (buildup of excess iron in body tissues)

  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

Serious or life-threatening causes of liver symptoms

In some cases, liver symptoms may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Blood infections

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer)

  • Injury to the liver or bile-draining tubes

  • Liver metastases (spread of cancer to the liver from other parts of the body)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of liver symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your liver symptoms including:

  • How long have you had these particular symptoms?

  • Have you ever had hepatitis?

  • Have you been vaccinated against Hepatitis B virus?

  • Have you had any abdominal pain, swelling or bloating? 

  • Have you had a fever or chills?

  • Have you seen changes in your skin? A change in color? New blood vessels? Any itching?

  • Have you noticed any increase in your sweating?

  • Have you had any mood changes that are not typical for you? Any anxiety or agitation?

  • Have you experienced any mental changes, such as blackouts, fainting spells, or unusual confusion?

  • What medications are you taking?

  • How much alcohol do you drink? Does drinking alcohol have any effect on your symptoms?

  • Have you used any illicit substances?

What are the potential complications of liver symptoms?

Because liver symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Adverse effects of treatment

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

  • Hepatic encephalopathy (brain disorder caused by liver disease)

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer)

  • Liver failure

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

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of infection

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 11
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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