Early diagnosis is key to treating liver damage.
Liver damage symptoms can range from a barely noticeable elevation in body temperature to the blatant yellow skin pigmentation known as jaundice. The liver is instrumental in normal body function. This organ plays a vital role in removing toxins from the blood and fighting infections. The liver also converts food into fuel for the body and manufactures proteins, enzymes and bile, a substance needed to digest fat. Early detection of symptoms can facilitate treatment, and, according to the American Liver Foundation, in some cases, reversal of the damage through regeneration.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the primary causes of liver damage include alcoholism and long-term hepatitis C infections. Additional causes include other viral and bacterial infections, over dosage of the drug acetaminophen (as well as other medications), herbs such as kava kava, malnutrition, disorders of the metabolism, congenital liver defects and injury. Regardless of the cause, a damaged liver, if left untreated, progresses through four stages marked by inflammation, fibrosis, cirrhosis and liver failure. In the initial stage of the disease, the liver is inflamed as it reacts to an injury or battles an infection. The upper right abdomen, where the liver is located, can feel enlarged, sore and hot to the touch. Without medical intervention, the second stage, fibrosis, occurs. This is a condition where the healthy tissue in the liver is displaced by tough, fibrous scar tissue. The remaining healthy tissue works to compensate for the nonfunctioning scar tissue. Liver function begins to diminish. At this point, with treatment and time, the liver can still regenerate to a healthy state. In the fourth stage, cirrhosis, so much scar tissue has amassed that the liver cannot regenerate. The goal of treatment is to prevent liver failure, the final stage.
Liver damage results in the following panoply of symptoms, which may not appear until the disease has progressed to its latter stages:
The diagnosis of liver damage begins with a physical examination and medical history. A blood test known as a liver panel is then conducted to check for elevated levels of certain enzymes and proteins produced by the liver and concentrated in the blood as a result of liver damage. The test also measures the levels of bilirubin, a product of red blood cells broken down by the liver. Bilirubin is yellowish-brown in color. It passes through a healthy liver and is eventually excreted. In a damaged liver, blood levels of bilirubin rise and produce the condition jaundice with its characteristic yellowing of the skin and eyes. Other blood tests utilized include a complete blood count (CBC) for evaluation of red and white blood cells and platelets, a prothrombin test (PT) to determine the rate the blood clots, a test of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) levels which are elevated in liver cancer and tests for iron levels, which when chronically elevated lead to liver damage. Non-laboratory tests include an abdominal computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan and ultrasound to provide information about the appearance and structure of the liver. Sometimes a liver biopsy is conducted to remove a small sample of liver tissue for further evaluation.
According to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, prevention is the most important treatment for liver disease. Many preventative measures are aimed at avoiding contraction of hepatitis. Vaccination for Hepatitis A and B is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To avoid contact with hepatitis infected blood, personal hygiene items such as razors should not be shared. Illicit drug users who share needles and people with multiple sexual partners practicing unprotected sex are at high risk. Some forms of hepatitis are spread through fecal matter and can be avoided through routine hand washing, thoroughly cooking food and drinking bottled water during foreign travel. General measures for preventing liver damage include avoiding excessive alcohol intake, eating a healthy diet and full disclosure with health care providers about all drugs utilized -- including prescription, nonprescription, herbal and illicit. Once liver damage occurs, treatment includes rest, fluid replacement and removal of causal agents, such as alcohol, when applicable. If the cause of the damage is hepatitis, antiviral medications may be administered. Depending on the progression of the liver damage, other medications such as steroids and antibiotics may be utilized. If liver damage has reached the stage of liver failure, a liver transplant is the only treatment option remaining.