Overview and Facts about Liver Disease
The liver is part of the digestive system and functions to help your body process and store nutrients while removing toxins from the blood. Liver disease is the result of damage to the liver from a variety of causes, including viruses, chronic alcohol use, obesity and genetic factors.
Regardless of the initial cause, liver disease follows the same course of progression. The primary mechanism of liver disease is uncontrolled inflammation, which damages healthy liver cells and replaces them with scar tissue—a condition called cirrhosis. Severe scarring impairs liver function, reducing the liver’s ability to process nutrients and filter toxins. Over time, liver failure may occur, a potentially life-threatening condition.
Symptoms and Signs of Liver Disease
Early-stage liver disease may present with symptoms specific to the underlying cause and ultimately affects your digestive health. Late-stage liver disease (characterized by cirrhosis) can eventually lead to liver failure and presents with severe abdominal pain and a persistent progression of symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of liver disease include:
- A tendency to bruise easily
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Blood in the stool or dark-colored urine
- Itchy skin
- Jaundice, or yellowing skin and/or eyes
- Nausea or vomiting
- Weight loss
Causes and Risk Factors of Liver Disease
Liver tissue can become damaged in a number of ways. Infections from parasites or from viruses like hepatitis are spread through the blood and cause inflammation of the liver. Autoimmune diseases cause your immune system to attack healthy liver tissue, leading to the abnormal formation of scar tissue, or cirrhosis. Other causes include:
- Blood flow abnormalities or blood diseases
- Chronic alcohol abuse
- Excessive exposure to medications or drugs
- Exposure to chemical toxins
- Exposure to human blood or other body fluids
- Genetic disorders
- Liver and bile duct cancers
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Risk factors for developing liver disease include:
- Diabetes and digestive health disorders
- Heavy alcohol use
- Receiving a blood transfusion before 1992
- Tattoos or body piercings done with infected equipment
- Unprotected sex
- Using shared needles to inject drugs
Tests and Diagnosis of Liver Disease
In diagnosing liver disease, your doctor will discuss your medical history along with your symptoms and perform a physical examination. Blood tests are used to detect the presence of infection and assess liver function. A liver biopsy, or small tissue sample, may be taken and studied to look for signs of liver damage or otherwise confirm a diagnosis. Imaging tests, such as ultrasound, MRI and CT scans, are also used to reveal the extent of liver damage.
Treatment and Care for Liver Disease
To treat liver damage, it is important to understand the cause and the extent of damage to the liver. Treatment of liver disease often involves changes to lifestyle and monitoring liver function. Lifestyle modifications include avoiding risky behavior, drinking in moderation, changing your diet, using medications responsibly and getting vaccinated if you are at risk of contracting any form of the hepatitis virus.
End-stage liver disease or cirrhosis may require medications that help manage digestive health and control the metabolizing of waste. Excess fluids that collect in the abdomen due to impaired liver function may need to be removed using a needle and syringe. Severe cases may require surgery to treat blood-flow problems; liver transplant surgery is the final option in the treatment of liver failure.