Chronic liver disease: Causes and warning signs

April 28, 2021 | by Alexander Hantel, M.D.

The size of a football, the liver weighs in at just over three pounds. But don’t let its size fool you. Did you know…

  • The liver holds up to 13 percent of your blood supply?
  • Anything you eat or drink gets filtered by the liver? Harmful toxins are filtered out through bowel movements or urine, and nutrients are either stored or passed along through the blood stream.
  • The liver helps keep blood sugar in check and breaks down fats?
  • The liver produces blood during fetal development, breaks down old or damaged blood cells in adulthood, and plays an essential role in blood clotting?

When it’s functioning properly, your liver is a powerhouse. But when liver function deteriorates over time, liver disease can set in.

Initially, you may not notice changes that indicate liver disease. Eventually, however, you may experience:

  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Abdominal pain, swelling
  • Itchy skin
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling in the legs or ankles (edema)
  • Spider-like veins
  • Darker colored urine or pale stools
  • Tendency to bruise easily

Early diagnosis is important. The liver can often repair and even regenerate itself. With a well-managed treatment plan, damage from liver disease can sometimes be reversed. But without treatment, at a certain point, the damage can become too severe.

Over time, disease of the liver can lead to scarring. Cirrhosis, also known as chronic liver disease, occurs when healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue. Eventually the scaring interferes with the proper function of the liver. Cirrhosis is not reversible and increases your chances of developing liver cancer.

Who’s most at risk? A number of factors can put you at higher risk of chronic liver disease, including:

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Hepatitis infection
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Unprotected sex or using shared needles (tattoos, body piercings, injecting drugs) resulting in hepatitis infections
  • Exposure to certain chemicals or toxins (aflatoxins)
  • Family history, certain inherited diseases (e.g., Wilson’s disease)

Maintaining a healthy weight, diet and lifestyle, and avoiding unhealthy habits like heavy alcohol consumption, can help lower your risk for liver disease.

If you're at increased risk of contracting hepatitis, ask your doctor about vaccination for hepatitis A and B. While there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, there is curative treatment for it and you can reduce your risk of infection by avoiding unprotected sex, not using intravenous drugs and seeking clean, safe shops for tattoos or piercings.

Edward-Elmhurst Health has partnered with the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System to provide quality, innovative and multidisciplinary care to patients with liver disease through the Walter Payton Liver Center. To learn more, call 312-996-6771.

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