symptoms 04 May 2022

Liver disease: types, signs, symptoms, & treatment

Your liver is the largest organ inside your body, and it’s responsible for digesting your food, extracting nutrients, storing energy, and filtering toxins. When there is a functional impairment in your liver, it’s called hepatic disease.1 Hepatic disease can be viral, alcohol- or diet-induced, inherited, autoimmune, and cancer-related, and can cause a number of physical symptoms.

Types of liver disease

  • Viral. Hepatitis A, B, and C are diseases of the liver caused by a viral infection.
  • Alcohol-related. Alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD) is caused by abuse and misuse of alcohol. Cirrhosis is a common AFLD.
  • Diet-related. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by high-fat diets and excessive fat consumption. This liver disease type has become more prevalent with the rise of obesity.
  • Inherited. Certain genetically inherited conditions like hemochromatosis and Wilson disease cause liver problems to develop.
  • Autoimmune. Immunodeficiencies like autoimmune hepatitis and primary biliary cholangitis (PBC) incorrectly instruct your immune system to attack your liver.
  • Cancer. Abnormal cell development in the liver produces tumors. Not all tumors will be cancerous; some liver tumors are benign, while others are malignant.

Signs and symptoms of liver disease

1 in 10 Americans is living with liver disease and about 5.5 million people in the U.S. struggle with chronic liver disease.2 With early treatment and sometimes substantial life changes as well, serious liver damage and disease can be avoided. Here are some signs and symptoms that may indicate liver disease is present:

  • Jaundice. Jaundice is a medical condition that causes yellow discoloration of the skin, the whites of the eyes, and mucous membranes. Jaundice happens when there are problems in the production of bilirubin, a yellowish-orange bile pigment that is secreted by the liver. An abnormal buildup of bilirubin causes jaundice.
  • Right-sided abdominal pain. Liver pain is often described as a dull throbbing or aching feeling in your upper-right abdomen. The pain is usually just under the rib cage, but may also radiate to your back or right shoulder.4 It may also feel like a stabbing or piercing sensation.
  • Itching. When the liver’s bile flow is poor, it can cause itchy skin, particularly on the hands, feet, and upper body (trunk). This is known as cholestatic pruritus. Poor bile flow causes a buildup of bile acids in the bloodstream, which is thought to cause the itching.5
  • Fluid accumulation. When liver disease progresses or becomes severe, fluid can accumulate in the legs and the abdomen. Leg, foot, and ankle swelling caused by liver disease is called edema. Fluid buildup in the abdominal cavity is called ascites.
  • Skin problems. When the liver is damaged or diseased, it becomes harder to create the proteins that clot your blood. This can cause certain skin problems. Diminished clotting ability can cause you to bleed and bruise more easily. You may also get spider angiomas (abnormal collections of blood vessels that may have red dots in the center and thus semi-resemble spiders). These skin problems are also common in cases of serious liver disease like cirrhosis.
  • Nausea/vomiting. In the earlier stages of liver disease, intermittent nausea and vomiting can be common. In the later stages of liver disease, nausea may linger due to excess waste the body cannot clear. Vomiting may become more regular or uncontrollable.
  • Oddly colored waste. When the liver has difficulty with bile flow, it cannot release the bile salts that account for stool’s brown color. This may cause stools to look pale or clay colored. Similarly, urine may be dark yellow or orange because of a bilirubin excess.

When to get a test or scan for liver disease

If you have been drinking excessively for a long period of time, have reason to believe you contracted a hepatitis virus, or have been experiencing the symptoms listed above with any regularity, seek medical attention straight away. A simple blood test (hepatic function panel) can check how well your liver is working. 

CT scans, ultrasounds, and other diagnostic imaging scans can show liver disease and give doctors an idea of how best to treat you. When you’re ready to get an imaging scan, you can find a center near you by using scan.com’s scan search tool.

Resources:

  1. medlineplus.gov: Liver Diseas
  2. clevelandclinic.org: Liver Disease
  3. clevelandclinic.org: Adult Jaundice
  4. mayoclinic.org: Liver disease
  5. childliverdisease.org: Pruritus
  6. clevelandclinic.org: Cirrhosis of the Liver
  7. hawaiipacifichealth.org: Love Your Liver: Look for These 8 Signs of Organ Damage