Every year almost 40,000 Americans die from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. This is just short of the number of female deaths from breast cancer annually. Liver disease is a serious public health concern but does not always get the attention that it deserves. Contrary to popular belief, liver disease is not only a result of substance abuse or viral infections. Sometimes it can be genetic and even being obese can lead to liver problems.
Types of Liver Diseases
The liver is a versatile organ that carries out several functions in order to sustain life and maintain health. It is also resilient in that it can withstand a host of different stresses and strains with an ability to regenerate in way that many other organs cannot match. However, the liver is not infallible and eventually it can become diseased, damaged and even fail completely.
The different types of liver diseases are largely classified according to the cause of the specific problem. Most of these diseases involve inflammation of the liver, which is medically known as hepatitis. There are many different types of hepatitis, some of which are acute and not serious while others are chronic and may be life-threatening. Sometimes the problem does not lie in the liver itself but in some other associated part, like the bile duct, which then impacts on the liver function.
This is one of the most common types of liver disease where the liver becomes inflamed due to a viral infection. A number of viruses can cause liver inflammation but it is mainly due to the hepatitis viruses. These viruses are of different strains and referred to as A, B, C, D and E. For example, hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus which is often contracted from contaminated food or water. Hepatitis B virus is transmitted through sexual contact and blood products.
Read more on hepatitis virus.
Parasitic Liver Infections
Parasites can infest the liver and damage it over time. This may be caused by trematodes (flatworms), such as blood flukes or liver flukes. These types of worms are often acquired from livestock such as sheep or cattle and sometimes from other organisms like snails. It enters the human body by consuming water or food that is contaminated with the immature worm or its eggs.
Alcoholic Hepatitis and Toxic Hepatitis
Alcoholic hepatitis is where the liver becomes inflamed and damaged due to excessive alcohol consumption usually over a long period of time. This is mainly seen in people who abuse alcohol and progresses to a point where the liver fails, unless it is detected early and alcohol use is stopped. Alcoholic hepatitis is a type of toxic hepatitis.
Toxic hepatitis is where the liver becomes inflamed and damaged from exposure to a number of different chemicals, and not only alcohol. These other chemicals may include drugs (prescription and over-the-counter), supplements (nutritional and herbal) and industrial chemicals (such as cleaning solvents and herbicides).
Fatty Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease is where globules of fat accumulate in the liver. Some fat in the liver is normal but in fatty liver disease there is an excess. There are two types of fatty liver disease – alcoholic and non-alcoholic. As the names suggest, alcoholic fatty liver disease is associated with alcohol abuse. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is not due to alcohol or substance abuse but usually seen with being overweight or obese.
Read more on fatty liver disease.
Autoimmune Liver Disease
Autoimmune hepatitis is where the liver is inflamed as a result of the immune system attacking it. This abnormality in the immune system arises for several reasons, some of which are unknown. It may be associated with certain genes. Eventually the liver is damaged by this abnormal immune activity. Similar autoimmune diseases that may affect the liver include primary biliary cirrhosis and primary sclerosing cholangitis.
Genetic Liver Problems
Certain liver diseases may be due to genetic factors and therefore inherited. It may tend to occur in families and includes conditions such as hemochromatosis, hyperoxaluria and Wilson’s disease. These type of liver diseases mainly cause a build up of substances within the liver. For example in Wilson’s disease, copper accumulates in the liver.
Tumors and Cancers
A number of different abnormal growths can affect the liver. Some of these growths may be malignant (cancerous) while others are benign (non-cancerous). Hepatocellular carcinoma is also known as liver cancer and arises from the liver cells (hepatocytes). A liver adenoma is a benign tumor, as is a liver abscess where pus accumulates within the liver tissue. Bile duct cancer can also spread to the liver tissue or affect the liver from functioning normally.
Cirrhosis is an end-stage of liver disease where there is significant destruction of liver tissue and scarring within the liver. It can occur for a number of different reasons, such as with alcoholic hepatitis or other forms of severe or prolonged liver disease. Cirrhosis is irreversible and will eventually lead to death.
Signs of Liver Problems
The different types of liver disease may affect the liver in different ways and to varying degrees. However, the effect on the liver often leads to similar symptoms although in some instances there are little to no symptoms, especially in the early stages of the disease.
Yellow Skin and Eyes
Yellowing of the skin and eyes is a condition known as jaundice. This arises when the liver is unable to excrete bilirubin, a byproduct of red blood cell breakdown. Normally this is expelled with bile. When it accumulates in the body, the bilirubin is deposited throughout the body but is most visible as yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. There may also be itching of the skin.
Dark Urine and Pale Stool
Along with jaundice, there may be a change with the color of urine and stool. Bilirubin is normally passed out into the bowels with bile. Here it is broken down further and is responsible for the brown color of stool. Small amounts of bilirubin is also passed out in urine. With some liver diseases, bilirubin excretion through the bowels is reduced. The stool may therefore be pale in color. The kidneys compensate in flushing out the bilirubin and urine becomes darker in color.
Liver pain may not occur with every liver disease and when it is present it may vary in nature and intensity. Generally the pain is felt in the upper right quadrant of the abomen, just under the right ribcage. This is where most of the liver sits and a smaller portion extends across the midline to the left upper quadrant of the abdomen.
Read more on liver pain.
Bruising easily can occur for a number of reasons but when it arises with one or more of the symptoms above then liver disease shoudl be suspected. The liver is responsible for producing substances that help the blood clot. When diseases, the liver may not be able to produce enough of these proteins. There the is easy bruising visible under the skin with even slight injury.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of Appetite
- Swelling, particularly fluid accumulation in the abdomen (ascites)