What Is Liver Disease?
All of your organs play essential roles in keeping your body functioning optimally, but your liver may be one of the hardest-working of those organs. Performing over 500 different functions, your liver is a football-shaped organ that does everything from filter unhealthy substances from your body to storing the nutrients you get from the food you eat. It’s also the largest organ inside your body. When your liver stops working the way it’s supposed to, it can affect your health in a wide variety of ways. Liver disease occurs when something happens to your liver that causes it to stop functioning normally.
The Stages of Liver Disease
Although there are many different ways that your liver can become damaged and a variety of different diseases exist that can affect this organ, liver disease tends to progress in the same way. Initially, you may begin with a healthy liver that works efficiently and is able to regenerate when small parts of it become damaged. As damage from disease increases, however, the organ may develop inflammation. This means your liver may swell and become tender, but you typically won’t be able to feel this. If the inflammation is allowed to continue and you don’t address the root cause, remaining in an inflamed state may begin to cause permanent liver damage.
Left untreated, the inflammation can cause your liver to start developing scar tissue in a process that’s called fibrosis. When scarring forms, it keeps blood from flowing through your liver normally, and the organ may become unable to work as well as it used to. Over time, the scars on your liver can harden, causing cirrhosis. Without treatment, cirrhosis can lead to complications including liver cancer, end-stage liver disease or liver failure. Often, the only treatment for these conditions is a liver transplant, particularly if your liver becomes unable to function at all.
What Causes Liver Disease?
Many different things can interrupt the normal functioning of your liver, and these illnesses, behaviors and other conditions are what eventually lead to liver disease. Types of liver disease can be divided into several different categories.
Genetic liver diseases are those you inherit from your parents. Often, these diseases prevent your liver from filtering harmful substances out of your blood properly, which causes those substances to build up in your liver. Hemochromatosis, which causes iron to build up in your body, and Wilson’s disease, which causes copper to build up in your body, are examples of genetic diseases that affect your liver and can damage it.
Infections can also cause liver disease. These typically result from viruses, parasites or other pathogens that are transmitted to you from another person or source. Hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C are common viruses that cause liver infections. Infections frequently lead to the death of liver cells and to inflammation, which can turn into fibrosis and cirrhosis if left untreated.
In some cases, autoimmune conditions can lead to liver damage. When you have an autoimmune disease, it means your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells instead of the harmful cells that it’s supposed to eliminate from your body. Some autoimmune disorders like cholangitis cause long-term inflammation in your liver. This chronic inflammation can lead to other types of damage.
Chronic misuse of alcohol is a widely known cause of liver damage. Drinking alcohol excessively over a period of years often leads to inflammation and eventually cirrhosis because it kills off liver cells, and it can also increase your risk of developing liver cancer.
Liver Disease Symptoms
It’s essential to get treatment for liver disease as soon as possible to avoid the severe complications that can result. This starts with understanding the various symptoms you may experience. It’s important to note that symptoms differ depending on the underlying cause of the liver disease, but the general symptoms below usually indicate some type of problem with your liver.
Yellowing of your skin and eyes, known as jaundice, is a common symptom of liver disease. Jaundice occurs when a waste product called bilirubin builds up in your blood. Typically your liver filters out bilirubin from your blood, but when the organ is inflamed, it’s unable to remove this substance effectively. Liver disease can also cause you to feel itchy because bile salts build up underneath your skin, and you might notice that your skin bruises more easily.
Pain is another common symptom of liver disease. You may feel general discomfort in the area of your abdomen where your liver is located, which is below your right lung, but you might feel pain around your entire abdomen. Abdominal swelling may also be present.
When you have liver disease, you’ll likely experience symptoms related to digestion. You may lose your appetite, or you may frequently feel nauseous. Vomiting is another related symptom. After experiencing digestion issues for some time, you might begin to lose weight even when you’re not trying to, and you could become chronically fatigued as your body loses its ability to draw nutrients from your food.
It’s also not unusual to notice changes when you go to the bathroom. Your urine may turn a dark, almost brown color, which is the result of excess bilirubin in your system. In contrast, your stools may develop a pale or clay-like color because your liver isn’t producing enough bile, which plays a role in giving stools a normal brown color.