Various diseases of the liver are summarized under the generic term liver diseases. These are often caused by toxins that the organ is unable to break down. Once damage has been caused by liver disease, it may not be possible to reverse it.
What are liver diseases?
The term liver disease refers to all diseases that can occur in connection with the liver. The organ is significantly involved in the metabolism in the human body and, in this context, is responsible for the breakdown of toxins, among other things. See AbbreviationFinder for abbreviations related to Liver Diseases.
Excessive intake of toxins, such as alcohol or viruses, can cause the liver to become diseased and no longer perform its important tasks, or only to a limited extent. If the diseases and thus the functional limitations continue to progress, irreparable damage and/or life-threatening conditions can occur.
Since liver diseases do not express themselves through specific symptoms and the organ itself does not have any nerves, ie it cannot cause pain either, they are often only noticed at a very late stage. Statistics say that about 5 million Germans suffer from liver disease.
Liver diseases can have very different causes. It is often a question of excessive consumption of stimulants such as alcohol or fatty foods, which overtax the liver and thus promote the development of some serious diseases.
Overeating in general and the resulting obesity can also contribute to the development of liver disease. Long-term use of certain medications can also put a strain on the liver and lead to liver disease. However, liver diseases are not always caused by the individual lifestyle.
Viral infections such as the hepatitis virus in various forms are the cause of many liver diseases. Metabolic or autoimmune diseases such as fatty liver or autoimmune hepatitis can also cause or be associated with liver disease, as can cancer of the organ itself.
Symptoms, Ailments & Signs
Symptoms of liver disease are not always clear. Often only several signs allow a suspicion of this organic disease. In many cases, symptoms only appear after a long course of the disease. Recognizable effects of fatty liver, liver cirrhosis (shrinkage of the liver), or hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) can come in different versions.
This also applies to liver cancer. It also happens that the detection of liver disease does not occur due to the lack of signs. This is mainly due to the fact that there are no nerve fibers in the tissue of a liver that are equipped with a guiding function for pain. Inflammation is therefore difficult to detect. A basic distinction is made between specific and non-specific symptoms.
The following non-specific signs may occur, which individually or in combination are indicators of liver disease: poor performance, listlessness, tiredness and intolerance to alcohol and/or fat. Frequent bloating after meals, diarrhea, bloating and loss of appetite and excessive sweating.
Typical symptoms of liver disease mainly occur when the course of the disease is already well advanced. It also plays a role how badly the liver is currently affected. A specific symptom of liver damage is a yellowish discoloration of the skin, which also occurs in the conjunctiva of the eyes.
This phenomenon is colloquially known as jaundice. Dyes from the bile acid that gets into the blood cause the yellowing. Color changes can therefore also be detected in the urine and faeces of people affected by severe liver damage.
Diagnosis & History
If there is a suspicion of liver disease, a detailed discussion with the patient should first take place. His living conditions and medical history are just as important in the diagnosis as a comprehensive blood test.
The latter can show increased liver values, which indicate a disease and/or malfunction of the organ. In addition, an ultrasound scan of the liver itself is useful to determine whether it is enlarged or showing any other changes. In case of doubt, a tissue sample can be taken, which provides more detailed information about the condition of the organ.
If liver disease is left untreated, it can lead to complete failure of the organ, among other things. Cirrhosis of the liver often develops, particularly as a result of increased alcohol consumption. This end stage of many diseases leads to slow intoxication of the body, which can result in a comatose state.
Typical & common liver diseases
- liver cirrhosis
- fatty liver
- liver failure
A fatty liver can become inflamed, and if left untreated, this acute hepatitis often becomes chronic. This also increases the risk of developing liver cirrhosis (shrunken liver) or liver cancer. As a complication of liver cirrhosis, varicose veins often develop in the esophagus, which can break open and cause heavy bleeding.
Fluid often accumulates in the abdomen (ascites), and brain function can also be impaired (hepatic encephalopathy). If liver cirrhosis is detected early, secondary diseases can be avoided in many cases or their occurrence can be delayed. Without treatment, the disease leads to liver failure.
Jaundice, severe weight loss, nausea and upper abdominal pain are evident in the advanced stage of liver cancer. If the organ can no longer adequately fulfill its detoxification function, toxins get into the brain and damage the brain cells, which becomes noticeable through impaired consciousness and personality changes. In the worst case, the gradual poisoning of the body leads to liver coma or kidney failure.
Another complication of liver cancer is metastasis to other organs or the skeletal system. Some autoimmune liver diseases are associated with inflammation of the bile ducts, which can lead to the development of cholangiocarcinoma. The surgical removal of part of the damaged liver carries the risk of secondary bleeding or infection. After a liver transplant, rejection reactions, thrombosis or narrowing of the bile ducts can occur.
When should you go to the doctor?
Liver diseases often go unnoticed in the early stages because they cause no or only very unspecific symptoms: Anyone suffering from chronic fatigue and a significant drop in performance should therefore also think of liver disease and consult a doctor to clarify the liver values. A medical examination is also recommended in the event of unwanted weight loss, which is often accompanied by nausea and loss of appetite.
Headaches, itching, a tendency to bruises, intolerance to fatty foods and a feeling of pressure in the upper right abdomen can also indicate liver disease: If several of the symptoms mentioned occur in combination, a visit to the doctor should not be postponed any longer. Serious warning signs are a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes (jaundice) and an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen (ascites) – in this case, advanced liver damage must be assumed, which requires immediate medical treatment.
The first point of contact is usually the family doctor, who can rule out or confirm a liver function disorder based on the liver-specific laboratory values. If there is reasonable suspicion of liver disease, further examinations by a specialist such as sonography, computer tomography or liver biopsy are necessary. Even without any symptoms, people who are overweight, frequently consume large amounts of alcohol or come into contact with pollutants that damage the liver should have their liver values checked regularly.
Treatment & Therapy
The treatment of liver disease depends on the actual cause of the symptoms. There is no “cure-all” for all liver diseases; what is useful in one disease may be harmful in another.
Viral diseases such as hepatitis are treated with antiviral drugs. In addition, the immune system is strengthened in order to be able to counteract the viruses. If an autoimmune disease is the cause of the liver problems, the immune system must be suppressed with the help of suitable medication (immunosuppressants). In this way, the body’s excessive reaction is prevented, which can also cure or at least alleviate the respective liver disease.
Liver disease caused by alcohol consumption requires strict abstinence from the recreational toxin. Consistent withdrawal is often the only way to avoid further damage to the organ. If you are overweight and/or eat too much fatty foods, you should lose weight and change your eating habits.
Outlook & Forecast
The prognosis for liver disease must be made individually. It depends on the existing disease, the general state of health of the patient and the options for treatment. In the case of fatty liver, the affected person can make a significant contribution to improvement or freedom from symptoms by changing their lifestyle. Depending on the cause, cirrhosis of the liver can also be alleviated by changing one’s lifestyle. Hepatitis can be effectively treated with current medical treatment methods.
Although the disease is a challenge for the organism to cope with, in most cases there is a good chance of recovery due to the advanced treatment options. If there is irreparable damage to the tissue, many patients can be cured by transplantation of the organ. A donor organ is often the last chance to improve health.
Transplantation is associated with numerous risks. The surgical procedure is complex and can cause complications. In addition, for the prognosis it is necessary to wait and see whether the donor organ will be accepted by the organism. In the case of cancer, the stage at which the diagnosis is made is decisive for the further course. Cancer therapy is associated with numerous side effects and risks. The quality of life is severely restricted. Nevertheless, it can lead to a cure in the management of liver cancer.
Some liver diseases can be prevented to some extent by a healthy lifestyle and moderate consumption of stimulants and fatty foods. Some forms of hepatitis are caused by poor hygiene or direct contact with infected people. Here, particularly detailed information can help to avoid further infections and the spread of the infectious disease. Regular check-ups at the doctor’s are advisable in order to be able to identify and treat any liver diseases in good time.
Follow-up care for liver diseases is highly dependent on the respective clinical picture. It is discussed with the family doctor, the internist, and if necessary with an oncologist or radiologist. Checking that a treated condition does not flare up or worsen is an essential part of follow-up care. The more serious the finding was, the closer the examinations are usually designed as part of the aftercare.
However, all liver diseases have something in common when it comes to aftercare. The liver should be optimally protected as part of a healthy lifestyle. This includes, in particular, not drinking alcohol. Drugs and unnecessary medicines are also broken down by the liver and are not recommended in connection with aftercare or in general. Fatty foods often have an unfavorable effect on the liver and bile. Smoking is always a risk factor for the development of internal diseases and should therefore also be avoided.
Jaundice is a sign of liver dysfunction. As part of the aftercare, attention should therefore be paid to yellowing of the skin or eyes, as well as any nausea or indigestion. If the liver disease is related to another disease (e.g. metastases in cancer), the causative disease should of course be the focus of follow-up care.
If a change in diet is prescribed because of chronic liver disease, nutritional advice can help. You can then put what you have learned into practice at home.
You can do that yourself
With all liver diseases, it is extremely important to avoid substances that damage the liver as much as possible. It is best to avoid alcohol completely, and medication may only be taken after consultation with the doctor treating you.
If addiction is present, withdrawal therapy is recommended. High-fat food also puts a strain on the liver. A balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain products, lean meat and fish is more gentle. Liver cirrhosis is often accompanied by a protein deficiency, which requires a special diet adapted to the degree of severity.
In addition to the therapy prescribed by the doctor, numerous home remedies can stimulate liver activity. Artichoke leaves, which can be eaten as a vegetable or drunk as juice or tea, have proven particularly effective. Milk thistle, drunk as an infusion two to three times a day, supports the formation of new liver cells, dandelion as a tea or in a salad promotes the flow of bile and thus relieves the liver. Sage, yarrow, chicory, gentian and wormwood can be used as additional medicinal herbs used as a tea preparation – not all of these medicinal plants are suitable for use in every type of liver disease. A doctor should therefore be consulted before self-treatment. Furthermore, a healthy lifestyle with sufficient exercise, but also rest and relaxation breaks, promotes the healing process in liver diseases.