Although liver disease is stereotypically linked to alcohol or drugs, the truth is that there are over 100 known forms of liver disease caused by a variety of factors and affecting everyone from infants to older adults. It is estimated that liver disease affects at least 2 million people in the UK.
In this article, our private doctors talk about the causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of liver disease. But first, let’s give ourselves an overview of the liver and its essential functions.
The liver is a large organ which sits in the abdomen (tummy region). It is composed of two main sections, called the right and left lobes, and it has several important functions.
- It works with other organs, such as the gallbladder, to digest, absorb and process food
- It helps us fight off infections and illness
- It filters blood arriving from the digestive tract, and sends it to the rest of the body
- It removes harmful toxins such as alcohol from the body, and metabolises drugs
- It makes proteins which help blood to clot
- It helps to control our cholesterol
Liver disease comes in many forms, but it usually doesn’t cause many signs or symptoms until it is quite advanced, and the liver is already damaged.
Causes of Liver Damage
Viruses and parasites
- Viruses are responsible for some liver diseases, like Hepatitis
- Parasites and viruses can infect the liver, causing inflammation that impairs the functioning of the liver.
- The viruses that cause liver damage can be spread through blood or semen, contaminated food or water, or close contact with a person who is infected.
Drugs and Alcohol
- Sometimes, damage to the liver can be the result of drugs, poisons or drinking too much alcohol.
- If the liver forms scar tissue because of an illness, it’s called cirrhosis, and this is common in alcoholics.
Cancer and Genetics
- You can get cancer of the liver, or you might inherit a liver disease, such as haemochromatosis.
- An abnormal gene inherited from one or both of your parents can cause various substances to build up in your liver, resulting in liver damage.
- Obesity is associated with liver damage, and can lead to a disease called a “fatty liver”, which later progresses to scarring of the liver.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is on the rise in the UK due to rising levels of obesity
Preventing Liver Disease
Given some of the more common causes of liver disease we have outlined here, you might not be surprised to find that there are several big things you can do to help prevent your chances of getting liver disease:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Avoiding overuse of alcohol or drugs
- Taking steps to avoid infection like Hepatitis (such as getting vaccinated) if you are at risk of this infection
Do I Have Liver Disease?
The signs and symptoms of liver disease include:
- Skin and eyes that appear yellowish
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Swelling in the legs and ankles (oedema)
- Itchy skin
- Dark urine color
- Pale stool color, or bloody or tar-colored stool
- Chronic fatigue
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Tendency to bruise easily
Easy bruising could be a sign of liver disease
Diagnosis of Liver Disease
If you suspect that you might have a problem with your liver, you should book an appointment at your GP surgery, without delay. Although it may seem frightening or overwhelming, finding the cause and extent of liver disease is important to help decide on the type of treatment that will benefit you.
Your doctor is likely to start with a health history in which you will be asked questions about your risk factors and symptoms, as well as any other health problems that you or a member of your close family has suffered. You will also undergo a thorough physical examination.
Your doctor may then recommend:
- Blood tests
- A group of blood tests called liver function tests can be used to diagnose liver disease. Additional blood tests can be done to look for particular liver problems or genetic (inherited) illnesses or infections.
- CT scan, MRI and ultrasound can show liver damage, and we can organise these at private hospitals or imaging clinics, if necessary.
- Tissue analysis
- Removing a tissue sample (biopsy) from your liver may help diagnose liver disease. Liver biopsy is most often done using a long needle inserted through the skin to extract a tissue sample, which is then analysed by experts in a special lab.
The liver can be investigated by means of an ultrasound scan of the abdomen
Treating Liver Disease
Each type of liver disease will have an individual treatment, tailored to its cause and the extent of damage. You will find out more about your treatment regime when you receive your diagnosis.
Sometimes, people will require drugs like anti–viral medications and supportive care (such as hydration) while the liver works to resolve an infection such as Hepatitis.
If the liver is damaged due to the effects of drug overdose, this can sometimes be resolved and function restored if the person receives treatment at an early stage following overdose.
Liver insult from infection or drugs can often be controlled by medications
If you have an illness that can be treated surgically, such as gallbladder disease or liver cancer, you might undergo surgery to remove part of the liver. Further treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy might be used to treat cancer.
Fortunately, the liver is an amazing organ that has the ability to regenerate (regrow) following removal of part of it.
For patients who have significant scarring to the liver (cirrhosis), medications and other measures, such as a special diet, may form part of your treatment.
If all else fails, and the liver is not expected to recover, liver transplantation is required as a final option.
The outlook for a patient with liver disease is very dependent on the underlying diagnosis. If you’re at all worried about the health of your liver and would like to see a private GP London Doctors Clinic is here for you. We have 12 convenient central London clinics, so we should never be too far away when you’re in need of a “doctor near me“!
By Melissa Dillon