The liver is the second largest organ in the body and performs several different functions.
The liver processes everything you eat and drink, which it converts into energy and nutrients for your body to use. It filters out harmful substances, such as alcohol, from your blood, and helps your body to fight off infection.
Exposure to viruses or harmful chemicals can harm the liver. When your liver is damaged, you may develop hepatic (liver) failure. In those with liver damage, the liver may eventually stop functioning correctly.
Liver failure is a serious condition. If you develop liver failure, you should receive treatment immediately.
Liver failure can be either acute or chronic.
Acute liver failure
Acute liver failure strikes fast. You’ll experience loss of liver function within weeks or even days. It may happen suddenly, without showing any symptoms.
Chronic liver failure
Chronic liver failure develops more slowly that acute liver failure. It can take months or even years before you exhibit any symptoms. Chronic liver failure is often the result of cirrhosis, which is usually caused by long-term alcohol use. Cirrhosis occurs when healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue.
During chronic liver failure, your liver becomes inflamed. This inflammation causes the formation of scar tissue over time. As your body replaces healthy tissue with scar tissue, your liver begins to fail.
There are three types of alcohol-related liver failure:
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease: Alcoholic fatty liver disease is the result of fat cells deposited in the liver. It generally affects those who drink a lot of alcohol and those who are obese.
- Alcoholic hepatitis: Alcoholic hepatitis is characterized by fat cells in the liver, inflammation, and scarring. According to the American Liver Foundation, up to 35 percent of people who drink heavily will develop this condition.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis: Alcoholic cirrhosis is considered the most advanced out of the three types. The American Liver Foundation says that some form of cirrhosis affects 10 to 20 percent of people who drink heavily.
A variety of causes are associated with liver failure.
Causes associated with acute liver failure
Acute liver failure, also known as fulminant hepatic failure, can occur even if you don’t have a preexisting liver disease.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common cause of acute liver failure in the United States is acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose. Acetaminophen is an over-the-counter (OTC) drug. You should follow the recommended dosage on the label. See your doctor immediately if you think you may have overdosed.
Acute liver failure may also be caused by:
- certain prescription medicines
- some herbal supplements
- viral infections, such as hepatitis, including hepatitis A, B, and C
- certain autoimmune diseases
Acute liver failure can be genetic, passed along by an abnormal gene from one or both of your parents. If you have a genetic liver disease, you’re more susceptible to liver failure.
Causes associated with chronic liver failure
Chronic liver failure is usually a result of cirrhosis or alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD). The American Liver Foundation states that alcoholism is the most common cause of cirrhosis in the United States.
Usually, your liver breaks down any alcohol that you consume. But if you drink too much, your liver can’t break down the alcohol fast enough. Also, toxic chemicals in alcohol can trigger inflammation in your liver and cause your liver to swell. Over time, this damage can lead to cirrhosis.
If you have hepatitis C, you’re at greater risk of developing chronic liver failure or cirrhosis. The hepatitis C virus is spread through the blood. If the blood from a person with the infection enters your body, you can catch it. Needle sharing and using dirty needles for tattoos or piercings can spread hepatitis C.
According to the American Liver Foundation, around 25 percent of people in the United States with chronic hepatitis C develop cirrhosis. It’s the second leading cause of cirrhosis in the country.
It’s also possible to develop liver failure without an identifiable cause.
Symptoms of liver failure may include:
- loss of appetite
- jaundice, a yellowish color of the skin and eyes
- weight loss
- bruising or bleeding easily
- edema, or fluid buildup in the legs
- ascites, or fluid buildup in the abdomen
These symptoms can also be attributed to other problems or disorders, which can make liver failure hard to diagnose. Some people don’t show any symptoms until their liver failure has progressed to a fatal stage. You may be disoriented, drowsy, or even slip into a coma by the time you reach this stage.
If you have alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD), you may develop jaundice. Toxins can build up in your brain and cause sleeplessness, lack of concentration, and even decreased mental function. You may also experience an enlarged spleen, stomach bleeding, and kidney failure. Liver cancer can also develop.
If you’re experiencing symptoms, seek help from your doctor. Be sure to let them know if you have a history of alcohol abuse, genetic abnormalities, or other medical conditions. There are several blood screening tests that can be done to detect any abnormalities in the blood, including abnormalities that may imply liver failure.
If you experience drug poisoning, such as from acetaminophen, your doctor may prescribe medication to reverse the effects. Your doctor may also prescribe medication to stop any internal bleeding.
A biopsy is a common test used to determine liver damage. During a liver biopsy, a small piece of your liver is extracted and examined in a lab. Some liver damage can be reversed if its caught early. The damaged liver may repair itself or medication can help the repair process.
You’re more at risk of fatty liver disease if you’re overweight or if you have a diet that’s high in fat. Making a lifestyle change to a healthier diet may help. If you have liver damage and drink alcohol, removing alcohol from your diet is also important. Learn more about the fatty liver diet.
Treatment depends on the stage of the disease.
Your doctor may prescribe medications. If only part of your liver is damaged, surgery may be recommended to remove the damaged part. A doctor can also take imaging tests of your liver to look for damage.
If a healthy liver is damaged, it can grow back.
If the damage is too severe, which can sometimes be the case with fast-acting acute liver failure, a liver transplant may be necessary.
One of the easiest ways to prevent liver failure is to moderate your drinking. The Mayo Clinic recommends that healthy women limit their alcohol consumption to one drink per day. Healthy men over the age of 65 should also limit their alcohol consumption to one drink a day. Men under 65 should consume no more than two drinks per day.
Other preventive measures include:
- practicing safe sex
- not engaging in drug use or needle sharing
- getting vaccinated for hepatitis A and B
- protecting your skin from toxic chemicals
- using aerosol spray cans in ventilated areas so that you don’t inhale the fumes
You should see your doctor if you have any of the symptoms mentioned. You may not have liver failure, but if you do, early detection is important. Liver failure can be a silent killer because you may not experience symptoms until it’s too late. With the proper treatment, you can control liver disease and lead a normal life.