Your liver is a vital organ that performs hundreds of tasks related to metabolism, energy storage, and waste filtering. It helps you digest food, convert it to energy, and store the energy until you need it. It also helps filter toxic substances out of your bloodstream.
Liver disease is a general term that refers to any condition affecting your liver. These conditions may develop for different reasons, but they can all damage your liver and affect its function.
Liver disease symptoms vary, depending on the underlying cause. It’s also possible for someone to have liver disease and not have any symptoms at all. However, Hepatitis NSW says that a few general symptoms can indicate some kind of severe liver damage.
- yellowish skin and eyes, known as jaundice
- pale, bloody, or black stools
- enlarged stomach due to ascites, which may make it uncomfortable to lie down or eat
- encephalopathy, a brain issue resulting in marked changes in mood, sleep, and cognition
Many conditions can affect your liver. Here’s a look at some of the main ones.
Hepatitis is defined as an inflammation of the liver. When that inflammation is caused by a virus, it’s referred to as viral hepatitis. Hepatitis can cause liver damage, making it difficult for your liver to function as it should.
Most types of viral hepatitis are contagious, but you can reduce your risk by getting vaccinated for types A and B and by taking other preventive steps, including using a condom during sex and not sharing needles.
Five types of hepatitis include:
- Hepatitis A. Hepatitis A is typically spread through contact with contaminated food or water. Symptoms may clear up without treatment, but recovery can take a few weeks.
- Hepatitis B. This type of viral hepatitis can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). It’s spread through bodily fluids, such as blood and semen. While hepatitis B is treatable, there’s no cure for it. Early treatment is key to avoiding complications, so it’s best to get regular screenings if you’re at risk.
- Hepatitis C. Hepatitis C can also be acute or chronic. It’s often spread through contact with blood from someone with hepatitis C. While it often doesn’t cause symptoms in its early stages, it can lead to permanent liver damage in its later stages.
- Hepatitis D. This is a serious form of hepatitis that only develops in people with hepatitis B — it can’t be contracted on its own. It can also be either acute or chronic.
- Hepatitis E. Hepatitis E is usually caused by drinking contaminated water. Generally, it clears up on its own within a few weeks without any lasting complications.
Fatty liver disease
Fat buildup in the liver can lead to fatty liver disease.
There are two types of fatty liver disease. These two types can manifest alone, or they can overlap:
- alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is caused by heavy alcohol consumption
- nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which is caused by other factors experts are still trying to understand
Without management, both types of fatty liver disease can cause liver damage, leading to cirrhosis and liver failure. Diet and other lifestyle changes can often improve symptoms and lower your risk of complications.
Autoimmune conditions involve your immune system mistakenly attacking healthy cells in your body.
Several autoimmune conditions involve your immune system attacking cells in your liver, including:
- Autoimmune hepatitis. This condition causes your immune system to attack your liver, resulting in inflammation. Without treatment, it can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.
- Primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC). This results from damage to the bile ducts in your liver, causing a buildup of bile. PBC can eventually lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis. This inflammatory condition causes gradual damage to your bile ducts. They eventually become blocked, causing bile to build up in your liver. This can lead to cirrhosis or liver failure.
Several genetic conditions, which you inherit from one of your parents, can also affect your liver:
- Hemochromatosis causes your body to store more iron than it needs. This iron remains in your organs, including your liver. This can lead to damage over a long period of time if not managed.
- Wilson’s disease causes your liver to absorb copper instead of releasing it into your bile ducts. Eventually, your liver may become too damaged to store more copper, allowing it to travel through your bloodstream and damage other parts of your body, including your brain.
- Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency occurs when your liver can’t make enough alpha-1 antitrypsin, a protein that helps prevent enzyme breakdowns throughout your body. This condition can cause lung disease as well as liver disease. There’s no cure, but treatment can help.
Drug-induced liver disease
It’s possible to damage your liver by overexposing it to certain drugs and supplements, as seen in a
Liver cancer first develops in your liver. If cancer starts elsewhere in the body but spreads to the liver, it’s called secondary liver cancer.
The most common type of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma. It tends to develop as several small spots of cancer in your liver, though it can also start as a single tumor.
Complications of other liver diseases, especially those that aren’t treated, may contribute to the development of liver cancer.
Cirrhosis refers to scarring that results from liver diseases and other causes of liver damage, such as alcohol use disorder. Cystic fibrosis and syphilis may also lead to liver damage and, eventually, cirrhosis — although these two causes are much less common.
Your liver can regenerate in response to damage, but this process usually results in the development of scar tissue. The more scar tissue that develops, the harder it is for your liver to function properly.
In its early stages, cirrhosis is often treatable by addressing the underlying cause. But without management, it can lead to other complications and become life threatening.
Chronic liver failure typically happens when a significant part of your liver is damaged and can’t function properly. Generally, liver failure related to liver disease and cirrhosis happens slowly. You may not have any symptoms at first. But over time, you might start to notice:
- fatigue and weakness
It’s a serious condition that requires ongoing management.
Acute liver failure, on the other hand, happens suddenly, often in response to an overdose or poisoning.
Certain things can make you more likely to develop certain liver diseases. One of the most well-known risk factors is heavy drinking, which the
Other risk factors include:
- sharing needles
- getting a tattoo or body piercing with nonsterile needles
- having a job where you’re exposed to blood and other bodily fluids
- having sex without using protection against sexually transmitted infections
- living with diabetes or high cholesterol
- having a family history of liver disease
- living with extra weight
- being exposed to toxins or pesticides
- taking certain supplements or herbs, especially in large amounts
- mixing certain medications with alcohol
- taking more than the recommended dose of certain medications
While not all liver disease or damage can be prevented, lifestyle choices can make a big difference when it comes to keeping your liver healthy. Like the risk factors above, many of the methods around prevention involve dietary decisions and physical activity.
The American Liver Foundation says that you can help prevent liver disease by:
- eating a nutritious diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains
- increasing physical activity
- limiting alcohol
- avoiding smoking and using drugs
- maintaining a moderate weight
- interacting cautiously with toxic chemicals like aerosol cleaners, bug sprays, and other cleaning products
- using a condom or other barrier method during sex
- visiting your doctor for annual physicals, including blood work
If you’re concerned about liver disease, it’s best to make an appointment with a healthcare professional.
They’ll start by looking over your medical history and asking about any family history of liver problems. Next, they’ll likely ask you some questions about symptoms you may be experiencing, including when they started and whether certain things make them better or worse.
Depending on your symptoms, they’ll likely ask you about your drinking and eating habits. Make sure to also tell them about any prescription or over-the-counter medications you take, including vitamins and supplements.
Once they’ve collected all this information, they may recommend:
- liver function tests
- a complete blood count test
- CT scans, MRIs, or ultrasounds to check for liver damage or tumors
- a liver biopsy, which involves removing a small sample of your liver and examining it for signs of damage or disease
Many liver diseases are chronic, meaning they last for years and may never go away. But even chronic liver diseases can usually be managed.
For some people, lifestyle changes are enough to control symptoms. These might include:
- limiting alcohol
- maintaining a moderate weight
- drinking more water
- adopting a liver-friendly diet that includes plenty of fiber while avoiding unhealthy fats, refined sugar, and salt
Depending on the specific liver condition you have, your doctor may recommend other dietary changes. For example, people living with Wilson’s disease should limit foods containing copper, including shellfish, mushrooms, and nuts.
Depending on the condition affecting your liver, you may also need medical treatment, such as:
- antiviral drugs to treat hepatitis
- steroids to lower liver inflammation
- blood pressure medication
- medications to target specific symptoms, such as itchy skin
- vitamins and supplements to boost liver health
In some cases, you may need surgery to remove all or part of your liver. Generally, a liver transplant is only done when other options have failed.
Many liver diseases are manageable if you catch them early. Without treatment, however, they can cause permanent damage.
The complications of untreated or unmanaged liver disease can lead to cirrhosis, severe scarring that cannot be reversed. If cirrhosis has gone too far, a liver transplant may be your only option.
Because some liver diseases can develop without symptoms, making it a point to schedule annual physicals, along with the typical physical blood work, can help you and your doctor stay one step ahead.
Focusing on a nutritious diet, physical exercise, and other healthy lifestyle choices such as limiting alcohol can also help with prevention or management.