The liver is a vital organ that is responsible for many critical functions in our bodies. Livers produce bile that is essential for digestion. Livers process and store iron that is important for red blood cell production. Livers metabolize medications into their active ingredients for use by the body. Livers also rid your body of toxic substances and convert waste products into urea which are then passed in urine.
There are over 100 types of liver disease and liver disease is a broad term that constitutes any disturbance of liver function that causes illness. At least 1 in 10 Americans has liver disease, or approximately 30 million people. The disease can be inherited (genetic) or caused by multiple factors that lead to liver damage, such as alcohol consumption or viruses. Obesity is also a known contributor to liver disease. Over time, damage to the liver results in cirrhosis (scarring) that eventually leads to life-threatening liver failure.
Liver disorders present themselves with some telltale symptoms, many of which are caused by the liver’s diminished capability of processing waste products in the body. Symptoms may include:
- Jaundice, a yellowish hue to skin and/or eyes
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Swelling of the extremities
- Dark colored urine
- Bloody, pale, or tar-colored stool
- Nausea, vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Easy bruising
If you are experiencing some of the above symptoms, consider making an appointment with your primary care physician for further evaluation.
Liver disease has many causes. Infection caused by parasite or virus may impact the liver’s capability to function properly. An immune system abnormality may lead to your immune system attacking your vital organs. Abnormal genes inherited from your parents may contribute to various substances building up in your liver, in turn leading to liver damage. Cancer and other growths may impact liver function. Other common causes of liver disease include chronic alcohol abuse and non-alcohol related fat accumulation in the liver.
In addition to the causes listed above, there are many risk factors for liver disease including:
- Heavy alcohol use
- Injecting drugs using shared needles
- Tattoos or body piercing performed with non-sterilized equipment
- Receiving a blood transfusion prior to 1992
- Exposure to other people’s bodily fluids or blood
- Unprotected sex
- Exposure to certain chemicals and toxins
- High levels of triglycerides in your blood
Liver failure that is a result of an acute condition, such as an overdose of acetaminophen, or disease that results from a virus can often be reversed and the liver will generally recover on its own.
Some treatment options may include lifestyle modifications such as decreasing or stopping alcohol consumption, modifying your diet, or losing weight. Other liver conditions may be treated with medications and careful, long term monitoring. Yet other liver conditions may require surgery, as is the case with liver failure.
Liver failure that is the result of a chronic or long-term condition is often not reversible. The first treatment step may include salvaging what remaining portion of the liver still functions properly. If that is not an option, a liver transplant may be necessary.
The best way to avoid liver disease and liver failure is through preventative measures. Consider the below tips for preventing disease:
- Drink alcohol in moderation and avoid drinking alcohol while taking acetaminophen. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.
- Eat a proper, healthy diet and consume foods in moderation.
- Exercise and maintain a healthy weight.
- Get a hepatitis vaccine or an immunoglobulin shot to prevent hepatitis A or B.
- Practice good hygiene, but washing hands frequently and prior to eating.
- Avoid risky behaviors by practicing protected sex (condoms), not sharing intravenous needles, and making sure conditions are sanitary prior to getting a tattoo or body piercing.
- Avoid contact with other’s blood or body fluids.
It’s important to diagnose liver disease early. Talk to your doctor to find out if you have any risk factors for liver disease and if you should undergo any tests or receive vaccinations. Northwest Primary Care offers comprehensive medical care and resources for those navigating liver disease.