Despite the liver being versatile and able to regenerate to some degree, it is not immune to all substances. Alcohol, drugs and even herbs can damage the liver along with other poisonous compounds that should be avoided. This damage is known as toxic hepatitis or is commonly referred to as liver toxicity. Depending on the substance that is responsible and dosage, it can lead to liver failure and even culminate in death.
What Happens In Liver Toxicity
The liver is constantly filtering blood, processing nutrients, breaking down wastes and neutralizing toxins apart from producing various substances that is needed to support life. However, the liver’s capacity to neutralize and eliminate toxic substances is limited. If these toxins accumulate in the liver it can cause inflammation of the liver tissue (heptaitis). This is therefore rerred to as toxic hepatitis.
Overall liver toxicity is a relatively common condition that is mostly caused by alcohol abuse. The liver is responsible for processing alcohol that is consumed. There are different enzymes in the liver that breaks down alcohol and one of the byproducts that arises is acetaldehyde. This substance can cause injury and inflammation of various internal organs. The liver is the most prone since it processes alcohol and acetaldehyde forms within the liver.
Read more on alcoholic liver disease.
Consuming small amounts of alcohol, especially infrequently, may not pose as great a risk. However, consuming alcohol daily and even infrequent consumption of large quantities of alcohol (binge drinking) can lead to toxic hepatitis and specifically alcoholic hepatitis. It is also believed that certain genetic and autoimmune factors may play a role which means that some people may be at greater risk of alcoholic hepatitis.
Apart from alcohol, a host of other substances may also be responsible including over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medication, certain herbs, industrial chemicals and pesticides or herbicides. If the liver damage is severe and prolonged, it may be irreversible. The liver can become scarred and eventually lead to liver failure. Another possible complication is liver cancer.
How To Spot Liver Toxicity
The signs and symptoms of liver toxicity are not significantly different from other types of liver diseases. It is important to note that these signs and symptoms may not immediately appear. If exposure to the toxin is discontinued, the liver may quickly recover and no symptoms may become apparent. In these cases the damage to the liver may only be detected with diagnostic tests that measure the liver enzymes.
Always consult with a medical professional if any of the symptoms discussed below arises. Early diagnosis and prompt treatment may help to avert serious and even life threatening complications.
Read more on signs of an unhealthy liver.
Fatigue and Loss of Appetite
Non-specific symptoms like fatigue and loss of appetite can occur early in liver toxicity. Apart from extreme tiredness, a person may also feel disinterested in activities and feel a constant desire to sleep. Fatigue and loss of appetite may sometimes be the only symptoms if the toxic damage to the liver is short lived. Often liver toxicity is not suspected by these symptoms since it occurs with various diseases, even conditions that do not involve the liver.
Yellow discoloration of the skin and sclera (whites of the eyes) are characteristic signs of liver disease but is not specific for one liver condition. When the liver is diseased or damaged, it cannot perform all of its functions properl. Filtering the blood of substances like bilirubin is impaired. This compound then builds up in the bloodstream and is deposited in the skin and mucous membranes such as the whites of the eye and inner lining of the mouth. The yellow discoloration is referred to as jaundice.
As waste substances and toxins build up in the body due to the inability of the liver to function properly, it can be deposited at various sites. One of these sites is the deeper layers of the skin where it may cause irritation and result in itching. This can be throughout the body and is then referred to as generalized pruritus. The itching may or may not appear with a rash and can occur with or without yellow skin discoloration (jaundice).
Abdominal pain may also arise with liver toxicity. The pain is usually in the upper right side of the abdomen where the largest part of the liver is located. However, this abdominal pain can sometimes be diffuse meaning that it may be felt throughout the abdomen and cannot be isolated to a certain region. The pain can vary in nature and intensity from a mild dull ache to a severe sharp pain.
Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are other common symptoms of toxic hepatitis. It may also vary in intensity. These are non-specific symptoms and should only be associated with liver toxicity when other symptoms are also present, such as jaundice and dark urine. The nausea may be constantly present or only arise after eating or when hungry. Vomiting may not always accompany the nause and can be episodic or not even ocur in some people with liver disease.
The liver is responsible for neutalizing and excreting toxins in the body. Part of these functions are shared by the kidneys. When the liver is compromised, the body may attempt to pass out some of these substances through the kidney. Dark urine is a consequence and usually associated with elevated bilirubin levels. It may also be accompanied by pale stool due to the lack of bilirubin which is responsible for the characteristic tan to brown color of feces. Normally bilirubin is passed out of the liver with bile which is then expelled with stool.
Unintentional Weight Loss
Weight loss may occur with prolonged liver disease. It is unintentional in that it can occur despite eating and not exercising vigorously. This may be due to disturbances in metabolizing and assimilating nutrients which requires the liver. However, the lack of appetite that may occur with liver disease as well as the vomiting can also affect eating habits, digestion and absorption of nutrients. This can result in weight loss.