Liver problems: Common problems and how to avoid them
Your liver is one of your body's largest and most important organs. It's very resilient, but it isn't indestructible. Learn about liver problems and how to avoid liver problems.
Your liver is located just under your rib cage on the right side of your abdomen, it's about the size of a football, weighs 3 to 4 pounds and performs hundreds of vital functions. Without it, you couldn't digest food and absorb nutrients, get rid of toxic substances from your body or stay alive.
Serious complications can arise if you develop liver problems. Some liver problems can't be prevented, such as those that are inherited, but you can take an active role in preventing other liver problems. Learn to identify symptoms of liver problems and how to avoid them.
Your liver's role in keeping you healthy
CLICK TO ENLARGE
Everything you eat, drink, breathe and absorb through your skin eventually reaches your liver. It controls a process called metabolism, in which your liver breaks down nutrients into usable byproducts. These byproducts are delivered to the rest of your body by your bloodstream. Your liver also breaks down toxins into byproducts that can be safely eliminated.
Your liver serves as a storage depot for sugar (glucose), which it releases when you need energy. Your liver also works as a chemical factory, producing many substances that perform vital tasks in your body. Examples include bile, a fluid that carries away waste and helps digest fat in the small intestine, and cholesterol, a substance needed by every cell in your body.
Liver problems: What can go wrong
CLICK TO ENLARGE
Your liver is very resilient in the face of liver problems. It can remain functional after losing most of its cells to disease. It can regenerate in a few weeks — even after much of it has been removed during surgery.
But your liver isn't indestructible — liver problems are possible. Excessive alcohol consumption over many years is a leading cause of liver disease. Too much alcohol can make a normal liver swell with fat, causing a condition called fatty liver. If the fat becomes inflamed, it can lead to either alcoholic hepatitis, a liver problem that causes serious but often reversible liver damage, or cirrhosis, which causes irreversible liver damage. Because of extensive scarring, a cirrhotic liver shrinks to a fraction of its normal size.
Viral hepatitis can lead to serious liver problems and is the most common type of liver disease. Hepatitis causes inflammation of the liver. The three types of hepatitis viruses — hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C — can all be prevented.
Signs and symptoms of liver problems: What to watch for
Signs and symptoms of liver problems include:
- Discolored skin and eyes that appear yellowish
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Itchy skin that doesn't seem to go away
- Dark urine color
- Pale stool color
- Bloody or tar-colored stool
- Chronic fatigue
- Loss of appetite
To keep your liver healthy and avoid any potential liver problems, see your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that concern you.
Prevent liver problems: How to protect your liver
Here are the most important things you can do to protect your liver:
- Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Over many years, more than one drink a day for women and more than two drinks a day for men may be enough to lead to cirrhosis. Use of certain drugs, including some illegal drugs, also can cause liver disease.
- Don't mix other drugs with alcohol. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) can be toxic to the liver even if you drink in moderation.
- Get vaccinated. If you're at increased risk of contracting hepatitis or if you've already been infected with any form of the hepatitis virus, talk to your doctor about getting the hepatitis B vaccine. A vaccine is also available for hepatitis A.
- Use medications wisely. Only use prescription and nonprescription drugs when you need them and take only the recommended doses. Talk to your doctor before mixing herbal supplements or prescription or nonprescription drugs.
- Beware of certain supplements. Herbal supplements that can be toxic to the liver include kava, comfrey, chaparral, kombucha tea, pennyroyal and skullcap. Also avoid high doses of vitamins A, D, E and K.
- Avoid contact with other people's blood and body fluids. Hepatitis viruses can be spread by accidental needle sticks, improper cleanup of blood or body fluids, and sharing intravenous needles. It's also possible to become infected by sharing razor blades or toothbrushes or by having unsafe sex.
- Be careful with aerosol sprays. When you use an aerosol cleaner, make sure the room is ventilated, or wear a mask. Take similar protective measures when spraying insecticides, fungicides, paint and other toxic chemicals.
- Watch what gets on your skin. When using insecticides and other toxic chemicals, cover your skin with gloves, long sleeves, a hat and a mask.
- Don't eat too many fatty foods. Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs. Eating a well-balanced, nourishing diet will help your liver do its job properly. A regular exercise program will help keep your liver healthy, too.
- Watch your weight. Even if you don't drink alcohol, obesity can cause a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which may include fatty liver, hepatitis and cirrhosis.