As there are over 100 diseases which can affect the liver, it isn’t surprising that there is a large variety of symptoms when it comes to liver diseases. Not only are the symptoms varied, but they differ in intensity and severity from almost negligible to life-threatening.
Some people are born with liver problems, while others develop problems later in life as a result of exposure to viruses, toxins and because of certain lifestyle choices.
Some liver problems can resolve themselves and leave no lasting damage. The liver can regenerate itself up to a point, but once cirrhosis (severe liver damage in which scar tissue replaces normal liver tissue) has set in, symptoms of liver disease can develop.
Symptoms of liver disease
Initial symptoms of liver disease are not obvious and are easy to miss, according to the Merck Manual. Many of these symptoms such as fatigue, diarrhoea, nausea, poor appetite, weakness and abdominal pain are non-specific.
Fibrosis (initial scarring of the liver) initially has no symptoms. But if it is diagnosed early, and treated appropriately the liver may heal itself and not develop into cirrhosis, which refers to irreversible scarring according to the American Liver Foundation.
However, the following symptoms of liver diseases are not easy to miss, as the liver becomes less and less able to perform its function:
- Jaundice. The whites of your eyes and your skin can turn a yellow colour because of an excess of bilirubin in the system. This is caused by malfunction of the liver.
- Pain and swelling of the legs and abdomen. Fluid accumulates within the abdomen and the legs, causing these to swell.
- Enlarged liver. Can be seen in a variety of causes of liver disease.
- Skin problems. The skin can become itchy and spiderlike blood vessels can form on the face and chest.
- Bleeding in the oesophagus and stomach. Easy bruisability.
- Blood abnormalities. A decreased number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Excessive bleeding and easy bruising can be the result of these abnormalities.
- Hormonal abnormalities. Decreased fertility in women and erectile dysfunction in men.
- Confusion. This is the result of a deterioration of brain function because of a build-up of toxic substances in the blood.
- Coma. This is a feature of advanced liver problems.
- Enlarged spleen.
Whereas many liver problems have few symptoms in their early stages, liver failure is a serious condition that requires immediate hospitalisation. Many different conditions can lead to liver failure, which can develop either rapidly or gradually. A large portion of the liver must be damaged before liver failure occurs.
As the symptoms of liver problems are either absent in the early stages, or also symptomatic of many other conditions, liver disease and liver cancer are often only diagnosed in their advanced stages.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark W Sonderup, B Pharm, MB ChB, FCP (SA). Senior Specialist, Division of Hepatology, Department of Medicine, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town (January 2015).
Causes of liver disease
Diagnosing liver disease
Treating liver disease
Image: Abdominal pain in a woman from Shutterstock