Liver disease can be a genetic (inherited) condition or caused by various factors that can damage the liver, such as viral infections or abuse of alcohol. Obesity is also closely associated with liver damage. As time passes, liver damage can result in cirrhosis (scarring), which can cause liver failure and is a potentially life-threatening condition.
Liver Disease - Medical specialists
Liver Disease - Further information
Liver disease will not usually produce many obvious signs or symptoms until the more advanced stages, when liver damage has generally already occurred. Possible symptoms at this phase may include weight loss, a loss of appetite, and jaundice.
Common liver diseases
Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD)
When a liver is damaged by years of alcohol abuse, this can cause the development of scarring of the liver. Though there can be some overlap, ARLD generally has three phases:
- alcoholic fatty liver disease is a build-up of fatty materials in the liver, which occurs after heavy consumption of alcohol (even over a short period). There are no external symptoms but the condition can be reversed – primarily by a change of lifestyle.
- alcoholic hepatitis, which develops after longer-term misuse of alcohol, is potentially a very serious threat to your health. More rarely, it can occur sooner as a result of binge drinking. It can only be reversed by giving up alcohol.
- cirrhosis means significant and irreversible liver damage has occurred, though giving up alcohol should increase life expectancy.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
A healthy liver should be almost fat-free. However, fat build-up can occur – usually among those who are overweight or obese. The four main phases are:
- steatosis (simple fatty liver), a mostly harmless accumulation of liver fat.
- NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis), which occurs when the liver becomes inflamed.
- fibrosis, which occurs when continual inflammation causes scarring in adjacent tissues, though the liver can still function normally.
- cirrhosis, which develops after long-term inflammation, and causes scars, lumps and liver shrinkage. This condition can lead to liver failure and liver cancer.
The most effective way to manage non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is by adopting healthy lifestyle choices, which include:
- sensible weight loss – by shedding 10% or more of your body weight, you can start removing fat from your liver.
- eating a healthy diet – a balanced diet that is low in salt, sugar and fat, and high in fruit, protein, vegetables and carbohydrates will boost your health and help in avoiding future weight gains.
- taking regular exercise – any kind of exercise will improve NAFLD, but 2.5-3 hours of reasonably intense walking, cycling or similar each week will contribute much to your overall health, and make you feel better.
- stopping smoking will immediately reduce your risk of a stroke or heart attack.
Hepatitis presents as a swelling (inflammation) of the liver, which is caused by a virus infection or exposure to alcohol and other harmful substances. There are various strains of hepatitis, and though some may cause relatively few problems, others can cause scarring, irreparable damage to liver function or even liver cancer.
As shown below, there are five different forms of viral hepatitis (the most common form), plus two further variants:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Hepatitis C
- Hepatitis D
- Hepatitis E
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Autoimmune hepatitis
Hepatitis symptoms (which can often pass unnoticed) include:
- joint and muscle pains
- a fever
- sickness and feeling sick
- feeling constantly tired
- feeling generally unwell
- appetite loss
- abdominal pain
- dark urine and pale, grey-coloured stools
- itchy skin
- jaundice (yellow eyes and skin)
Hemochromatosis is a genetic (inherited) condition that causes a gradual accumulation of iron – usually close to the liver. This disease is particularly common in people from north-European Celtic areas (e.g. Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and Spain). Untreated haemochromatosis can cause damage to the liver, pancreas, heart and joints.
The symptoms of haemochromatosis commonly begin from 30-60 years of age and include:
- fatigue and tiredness
- loss of weight
- joint pain
- erectile dysfunction in males
- irregular or absent periods in females
Primary biliary cirrhosis
Primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) is an uncommon kind of long-term liver condition, which damages bile ducts within the liver. The result can be a progressive accumulation of bile in the liver, which can damage the organ and is likely to develop into cirrhosis (scarring of liver tissue).
Though PBC may not always cause noticeable symptoms during the early phases of the disease, some people may suffer from:
- itchy skin
- a dry mouth and eyes
- pain and discomfort in the upper-right abdominal region
It’s important to understand that any kind of liver disease may cause cirrhosis – not just alcohol-related conditions.