Did you know that your liver is about as large as a football? It’s the second largest organ in your body and is found under the rib cage in the upper right side of your abdomen. Your liver performs hundreds of functions that keep you healthy, including:
• Digesting food
• Regulation of metabolism
• Ridding your body of toxic substances
• Production of clotting proteins
Liver disease has many causes. In fact, there are more than 100 types of liver disease, according to the American Liver Foundation. It can be inherited, or it can be caused by an immune system abnormality or cancer. Let’s look at three of the most common causes of liver disease that we treat at Revere Health Gastroenterology.
The inflammation that results when parasites and viruses infect the liver, reducing liver function and causing damage. Viruses are spread through bodily fluids like blood and semen, often during unprotected sex, sharing needles or when receiving body piercings or tattoos. Contaminated food or water or coming in close contact with a person who is infected are additional sources of liver infection.
Five hepatitis viruses cause liver infection: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, hepatitis D and hepatitis E. The American Liver Foundation calls hepatitis C “the silent epidemic”:
“Three-quarters of people infected with hepatitis C don’t know they have it because they can have no symptoms for years. The disease often lies undetected for 20 to 30 years and is a leading cause of cirrhosis and liver failure.”
Vaccines are available to prevent hepatitis A, B and E infections. Although vaccines against hepatitis C or D virus are not available, vaccination against hepatitis B virus also reduces the risk of infection with hepatitis D virus.
2) Fatty liver disease
This common condition is caused by a buildup of triglyceride fats in the liver. As many as 25 percent of Americans have fatty livers, and most experience no symptoms. However, fatty liver is a progressive disease, and can can cause inflammation and scarring, known as fibrosis, as it advances. When the fat content of the liver increases to greater than 10 percent, its function can become significantly impaired.
- Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (AFLD) is caused by high alcohol consumption. It is the earliest stage of alcoholic liver disease, which may progress to the most severe stage—cirrhosis.
- Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) occurs for reasons other than alcohol consumption, with obesity topping the list of risk factors. Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol also increase the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Symptoms are usually absent or mild but can include:
• Fatigue and weakness
• Loss of appetite and weight
• Nausea or vomiting
• Confusion and difficulty concentrating
• Enlarged liver with pain in the upper abdomen
• Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
• Fluid buildup and swelling of the legs (edema)
Although fatty liver disease is not curable with medication or a procedure, losing weight is often helpful.
Sustained damage to the liver from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, alcohol misuse or chronic hepatitis B or C can eventually result in scarring called cirrhosis. This can lead to liver failure–a life-threatening condition. In fact, cirrhosis is among the 10 leading causes of death in the United States.
Many patients have no symptoms for a long period of time. In addition to the symptoms listed for fatty liver disease, those indicating cirrhosis can include:
• Bleeding and bruising easily
• Fluid buildup in the lungs and abdomen
• Shortness of breath
• Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
• Itchy skin
• Dark urine color
• Pale stool color, or bloody or tar-colored stool
The complications and treatment of liver disease vary depending on the cause of the liver problems. Some conditions can be treated with lifestyle modifications and working with your doctor to monitor your liver function. Other conditions may be treated with medications or require surgery.
If left untreated, liver disease may progress to liver failure, a life-threatening condition that requires a liver transplant.
You can learn more about preventing, diagnosing and treating fatty liver disease and cirrhosis through lifestyle changes in Revere Health Gastroenterology’s FAQ section.
If you’re concerned about the health of your liver, Revere Health’s gastroenterologists are specialists who diagnose and treat a wide variety of disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, including diseases of the liver and pancreas. We offer compassionate, patient-centered care in several Utah locations.