The liver is the largest solid organ in the body which is about the size of a football and sits exactly under the rib cage on the ride abdominal side. The essential function of the liver is to help in digestion of food, as well as remove the toxins from the body such as biochemical waste, alcohol, drugs, and environmental toxins. It also produces essential proteins and metabolism of fats and carbohydrates. Moreover, the liver turns the nutrients absorbed from the diet into substances usable by the body and stores them to later supply to the cells upon need. Thus, the liver is a very critical organ of the body and when it is compromised, a lot of health problems begin to rise.
The liver is compromised due to acquired or inherited factors that can harm the liver. With the passage of time, if the liver problems are not cured, they can cause scarring, leading to ultimate liver failure – a life-threatening problem. Hence, it is critical to protect and keep the liver healthy. Some of the general symptoms that indicate an unhealthy liver or early liver problem are:
- Pale/yellow skin and eyes – mostly because of Jaundice
- Dark, foul-smelling urine
- Blood in stool
- Pale or black stool
- Swelling in legs, ankle or abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Itchy skin
- Easy bruising and bleeding
That said, these symptoms are caused because of the underlying problem affecting the liver.
Some of the common causes of liver problems are:
Alcohol Abuse: Years of excessive drinking can cause severe liver problems and sometimes irreparable damage to the liver. Alcohol can cause inflammation and swelling in the liver, as well as also lead to scarring known as cirrhosis – which is the final stage of liver disease. Alcohol-related liver diseases (ARLD) can include problems such as fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, alcoholic cirrhosis. Symptoms of people suffering from alcohol-related liver problem include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Increased thirst
- Swollen legs and abdomen
- Unexplained weight loss
- Bleeding gums
- Loss of conscious
- Red hands or feet
- Changes in skin colour
Smoking: Smoking is very harmful to the overall health and particularly for the liver since the toxic chemicals present in tobacco lead to inflammation of the liver and eventually cause scarring of the tissue. Smoking further aggravates the production of cytokines that further increase inflammation, causing damage to liver cells. Smoking is also has been directly linked to liver cancer. Liver problems caused due to smoking show symptoms such as:
- Visible blood capillaries on the upper abdomen
- Itchy skin
- Loss of appetite and body weight
- Swelling and tenderness on the part where the liver is located
Hepatitis: Hepatitis is a condition that causes inflammation in the liver and eventually scarring, if not treated within time. It makes it difficult for the liver to function normally. Hepatitis is primarily caused due to virus infection, and in some cases can be because of an auto-immune problem or due to medicines, drugs, toxins, and alcohol. A person suffering from Hepatitis A, B, C, D or E can develop a chronic liver problem, if not treated within time. Hence, it is important to get vaccinated for hepatitis and in case the disease still affects, get medical help to cure the infection because if not treated within time, the hepatitis virus can cause liver failure. Also, all types of hepatitis are contagious unless vaccinated against.
Immune System Abnormalities: Immune system abnormalities such as auto-immune diseases in which the immune system starts to attack healthy parts of the body can also cause a lot of liver problems such as:
- Autoimmune Hepatitis: In this problem, the immune system tends to attack the liver resulting in inflammation, which if left untreated can cause scarring leading to liver failure.
- Primary Biliary Cirrhosis: This disease is caused because of damage to bile ducts in the liver, resulting in the accumulation of bile. It can intensify to cause permanent liver damage.
- Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis: This condition causes intense inflammation in the liver leading to damage of bile ducts, causing them to create blockage and build-up of bile.
Genetics: Liver problems can also be inherited from one or both parents. A transfer of an abnormal gene from the parent to the child can result in a build-up of various foreign substances in the liver, causing liver damage. Some genetic liver problems include:
- Hemochromatosis: Under this condition, the body tends to absorb and store more iron than necessary, which in turn accumulates in the liver and can cause serious complications, if not managed.
- Wilson’s Disease: In this disease, the liver absorbs copper instead of releasing it into the bile duct. With time, the liver cannot store more copper because of being damaged, and hence, the copper travels through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, damaging them especially the brain.
- Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency: Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a protein that helps prevent the breakdown of enzymes in the body. When the liver cannot make this protein, it causes a deficiency in the body, leading to acute lung and liver diseases. There is no cure to this problem; however, symptoms can be managed.
Obesity: Obesity which is excess of body fat is strongly linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This causes an increase in intrahepatic triglyceride (IHTG) content that can lead to inflammation and fibrosis. If not treated on time, obesity can cause severe progression of liver disease.
Drug Overdose: Consuming certain medications or direct substance abuse can cause liver problems that can eventually lead to damage of the liver. Medicines such as acetaminophen should be consumed as per the advice of the doctor since it can cause extreme effects on the liver.
Cancer: Cancer is another cause of liver problems. Cancer that develops in the liver is called the liver cancer and if cancer develops elsewhere in the body but eventually spreads to the liver, the condition is called secondary liver cancer. A common liver cancer is a hepatocellular carcinoma that causes smalls sports of cancer in the liver. Complicated and untreated liver diseases can also cause liver cancer.
Other factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, chronic heart problems, and malnutrition, if not managed can become factors that cause liver problems.
Factors that increase the risk of liver diseases
- Some factors put people at higher risk for liver diseases, such as:
- Injecting drugs through shared needles
- Tattoos or piercings on the body through non-sterile needles
- Exposure to a person’s blood or bodily fluids
- Exposure to certain chemicals, pesticides or toxins
- Unprotected sex
- Family history of liver problems
- Consumption of supplements or herbs in large amounts
That said, mostly all causes of liver problems can be easily prevented and in certain cases, early diagnosis of live problems can help save a lot of damage. Hence, it is critical to maintain a healthy lifestyle and get regular health check-ups to detect any live problems early on.