You probably know that your liver helps filter waste from your body, but that is not its only job. The liver produces essential proteins, stores vital nutrients and helps your body ward off infections. If your liver becomes damaged or diseased, your health can suffer, and severe liver damage can be life-threatening.
Central to the cause of liver damage is chronic inflammation. While the liver is able to repair itself to some extent by recruiting stem cells to replace cells that are damaged, the supply of stem cells eventually runs out. Instead of being repaired, the damaged tissue become scarred.
Advanced scarring, known as cirrhosis, changes the liver’s shape and ability to function properly, often leading to severe muscle loss, weight loss and inability to fight off infections. Chronic liver failure worsens over time; known as end-stage liver disease, it can be fatal.
Several types of diseases can lead to liver damage and cirrhosis. Here are the three most common:
Fatty liver disease develops when a person gains excess weight and begins to store an abnormal amount of fat in their liver, which can damage the tissue and cause permanent scarring. Fatty liver disease can begin when patients are about 20 pounds over their healthy weight.
Viral hepatitis is related to a group of infections that attack the liver. Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver.
Hepatitis A spreads through contaminated food or water or contact with someone who is infected. Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. Hepatitis C spreads through contaminated blood. Fortunately, all three types of hepatitis can be controlled, cured or prevented.
A vaccine is available to prevent hepatitis A and B but not C. Over the last decade new oral drugs have been developed to treat hepatitis C, with cure rates approaching 100%.
Alcoholic hepatitis is a severe form of liver damage that develop most often in people 30 to 50 years old from excessive alcohol consumption. Severe acute alcoholic hepatitis can be fatal for 30 to 80% of patients. Tragically, the isolation associated with pandemic has led to a marked increase in alcohol consumption and a significant rise in patients presenting with alcoholic liver disease.
“Alcohol intake is the leading cause of cirrhosis, so avoiding alcohol or at least minimizing your use can help,” says Dr. Gutierrez. “We recommend that men limit their intake to two drinks per day; for women, one drink. If you are overweight, there appears to be no safe amount of alcohol to drink”
Liver disease often has no symptoms until it has progressed, so many people will not realize there is a concern until the liver is significantly damaged. Symptoms of advanced liver disease can include:
- Dull, nagging pain in your right upper abdomen
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes caused by a buildup of bile)
- Vomiting blood
- Swelling of the abdomen
“Unfortunately, liver disease can quietly cause severe damage so there may be no warning signs until end-stage liver disease develops. If you suspect you have liver disease based on the symptoms above you should notify your doctor immediately,” says Julio Gutierrez, MD, a hepatologist and liver transplant specialist at Scripps Green Hospital and Scripps Clinic.
Liver disease is also the leading cause of liver cancer.
Liver disease treatments depend on the severity of the damage and how much healthy liver tissue remains.
Steroids, antiviral drugs and immunosuppressant medications can help manage some liver conditions including hepatitis B and C and fatty liver disease.
Surgery may be required to remove the diseased part of the liver. In severe cases of cirrhosis, patients may need a liver transplant.
You can help lower your risk of some liver problems by staying slender and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption.
There are currently no routine screening exams for liver disease. If you are concerned about damage to your liver, talk with your primary care physician. They may order a blood test called a comprehensive metabolic panel that will measure your liver enzymes and function and help determine if you should see a liver specialist.