The liver is an important organ that aids in food digestion and eliminating waste and toxins from the body. Because it’s responsible for many vital functions in the body, a diseased or injured liver can be dangerous to your health. Liver disease, also called hepatic disease, can cause significant damage to the rest of the body if not properly treated and diagnosed.
The University of Kansas Health System provides the latest diagnosis and treatment options for all types of liver disease, including conditions that may require a liver transplant. Our team will thoroughly assess your condition to determine the best option for treating your liver disease symptoms.
What is liver disease?
Liver disease is a general term that refers to many possible problems that could cause the liver to stop working properly. Some types of liver disease are genetic (inherited), while others are caused by injury or trauma. There are many factors that can damage the liver enough to affect its ability to function correctly, including heavy alcohol use, being overweight and certain types of virus.
When the liver is injured, it forms scar tissue as it tries to heal. As more scar tissue is deposited in the liver, the liver does not function as well and can fail. This progressive scarring of the liver is called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis occurs in response to damage to the liver from many different types of liver diseases.
Types of liver disease
Alcohol misuse can lead to either severe inflammation of the liver (alcoholic hepatitis) or may cause chronic inflammation of the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis.
A genetic disorder leading to abnormal amounts of protein depositing in liver cells, this is the most common genetic cause of liver disease in newborns and children. It may also appear in adulthood, and it can ultimately lead to hepatitis or cirrhosis.
This inflammation of the liver occurs when the immune system abnormally attacks liver cells. The exact cause of autoimmune hepatitis is not known, but the disease is likely triggered by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Ongoing damage from autoimmune hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis.
Cancer that starts in the liver is called primary liver cancer. Those with cirrhosis or certain types of chronic liver disease (like hepatitis B or C) are at much greater risk of developing liver cancer.
A viral liver disease, hepatitis B is a common cause of worldwide liver infection. Infants and children are more likely to develop chronic hepatitis B infection if exposed to the virus at a young age. Most adults infected with hepatitis B virus will clear the virus without long-term complications. Chronic hepatitis B increases the risk of developing cirrhosis and liver cancer. A vaccine can prevent hepatitis B, but there is no cure. Infected individuals need to take precautions to prevent spreading hepatitis B to others.
This is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus. It is most often spread by exposure to contaminated blood or sexual contact. Chronic hepatitis C infection increases the risk of developing cirrhosis and liver cancer. Once difficult to treat, hepatitis C can now be addressed with many options for treatment or cure by oral medications taken daily for only a few months.
A term used to describe several conditions in which too much fat is stored in liver cells, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis – fatty liver disease – can lead to liver inflammation and may ultimately progress to scarring and cirrhosis or liver failure. One of the most common forms of chronic liver disease, risk factors for the development of fatty liver disease include being overweight, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
This is an autoimmune disease of the liver and liver bile ducts. As this occurs, the liver can be damaged and become scarred. Many people have no symptoms and are diagnosed through the appearance of an abnormality on routine blood testing.
Another autoimmune/inflammatory disease of the liver that causes scarring of the bile ducts, this type of liver disease causes the ducts to narrow. Over time, the inflammation can lead to repeated infections, tumors of the bile duct and cirrhosis. While liver transplantation can be a cure, care for those people with this type of liver disease focuses on treatment of symptoms and, if necessary, procedures that can open blocked bile ducts.
Liver disease symptoms and risks
The symptoms of liver disease will vary depending on the exact type of condition diagnosed. Common signs that could indicate a possible liver disease include:
- Bruising easily
- Chronic fatigue
- Dark urine
- Itchy skin
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- Loss of appetite, including nausea or vomiting
- Pain and swelling in the abdomen
- Pale stools, or stools that are bloody or tar-colored
- Swelling through the legs and ankles
The risk of developing liver disease increases with:
- A family history of liver disease
- Being overweight
- Certain types of chemical or toxin exposure
- Having a blood transfusion (before 1992)
- Having tattoos or body piercings
- Having type 2 diabetes
- Heavy alcohol use
- Taking drugs by injection or using shared needles
Some types of liver disease (like hepatitis C) can develop due to contact with blood or bodily fluids from someone who already has the disease, including during unprotected sexual intercourse.
Live disease diagnosis and screening
To diagnose the type of liver disease you have, your doctor will begin with a full physical exam as well as a health history. Your doctor may also order liver function tests (a type of blood test) or imaging tests such as an ultrasound, CT scan or MRI to check for liver damage. In some cases, your doctor may remove a small sample of tissue from your liver and send it to the lab for further testing and examination under a microscope.
Cancer care you can count on
The University of Kansas Cancer Center is 1 of fewer than 60 NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation, and it's part of The University of Kansas Health System.
Liver disease treatment
There are different types of treatment that can help manage liver disease symptoms, depending on your specific condition. Possible treatments for liver disease include medications or surgery, including liver transplant surgery. You may need to make lifestyle changes to help your liver heal, such as losing weight or no longer drinking alcohol.
Gastroenterologist Steven Weinman, MD, PhD, explains that abstaining from alcohol is a meaningful treatment that can reverse some parts of liver disease.
There's really a threshold when alcohol-related liver disease becomes possible. And that's about 2 drinks a day for women and about 3 or 4 drinks a day for men. Not everyone who drinks more than that will get alcohol-related liver disease because there are genetic factors that make you sensitive. But if you drink at that level, you are taking on the risk that you can damage your liver very severely. And this can be life-threatening, and it can be lifesaving if you stop drinking because, at almost every stage of liver disease, there's a reversible component and people who stop drinking heal up and improve. And there's always hope and a chance for people.
Andy Donnelly had never had any health issues, "not even a cavity," he said. "Then I came up with the weirdest cancer possible." A biopsy revealed Andy had an extremely rare type of cancer that causes tumors in the linings of the blood vessels of the liver. When he received his transplant, his liver weighed 16 pounds; healthy livers weigh about 4 pounds.