Learn about the causes and common symptoms of liver disease.
Liver disease isn't just one condition, but rather a group of conditions that affect the liver's ability to filter toxins from the body. Cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis are two of the better-known types of liver disease. Because there are many liver disease types, there also is a wide range of symptoms.
In the early stages of liver disease, symptoms might be mild. The patient might feel fatigued and experience mild weight loss. In advanced stages of liver disease, however, the patient might have yellowish skin, dark-colored urine and a swollen abdomen. In some cases, a person with liver disease will experience no symptoms.
Many common symptoms of liver disease, like fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and weakness can be mistaken for other conditions. However, yellowing of the skin and of the whites of the eyes, called jaundice, is a characteristic symptom of liver disease. Jaundice is caused by excess bilirubin in the bloodstream. High levels of bilirubin also darken the color of a liver disease patient's urine.
A swollen, or distended, abdomen is another indication of liver disease. Portal hypertension -- high blood pressure in the portal vein -- is one cause of this abdominal distention. Another is ascites, which occurs when fluid leaks from the liver and intestines and accumulates in the abdomen. Portal hypertension and ascites are liver disease symptoms that often occur together. A patient with ascites might also feel short of breath and have little appetite.
A liver disease patient might also have an enlarged liver. If the liver is just slightly enlarged, the patient may not even notice that something is wrong. However, someone with a severely enlarged liver may report symptoms that include fullness or discomfort in the stomach.
Cholestasis occurs when bile flow from the liver is decreased or stopped altogether. This condition can cause symptoms like itchiness, spider-shaped blood vessels on the skin, pale stool and abdominal pain. Liver diseases like hepatitis, cirrhosis and alcoholic liver disease can lead to cholestasis.
Liver disease isn't limited to the abdominal area; it can also affect a person's brain. When a diseased liver is unable to filter toxins from the body, the toxins can build up in the bloodstream and reach the brain, resulting in hepatic encephalopathy (damage to the brain and nervous system). Symptoms include drowsiness, confusion, sluggish speech, and personality and mood changes.
A doctor can order a variety of tests for a patient with liver disease symptoms. Ultrasounds can detect blocked bile ducts or examine blood flow in the liver. If liver tumors are suspected, computed tomography (CT) scans might be ordered. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect hepatitis and other liver diseases. If these tests don't yield enough information to make a diagnosis, a doctor might order a liver biopsy. In a liver biopsy, a hollow needle is inserted into the skin and liver in order to retrieve a specimen. The extracted tissue is then sent to a lab for testing.
Liver disease is a serious medical condition, and its symptoms should not be ignored. A full examination by a professional health care provider is a must for anyone experiencing liver disease symptoms.