September 02, 2022

Understanding Liver Disease and Cirrhosis


Liver disease is a general term that covers many conditions affecting the liver. If these conditions aren’t diagnosed and treated, they can lead to liver failure and liver cancer. 

What Does the Liver Do?

The liver is the body’s second-largest organ, with only the skin being larger. It’s approximately the size of a football and sits under the ribcage on the right side of the body. 

The liver assists with digestion, helping to break down food into nutrients and metabolize drugs so the body can absorb them. It also removes toxins and wastes from the digestive tract. The liver produces substances like bile and bilirubin to assist with both actions.

What Causes Liver Disease?

Several factors can cause liver disease or increase the likelihood that you’ll develop it, including:

  • Immune system problems. Conditions like autoimmune hepatitis and primary biliary cholangitis occur when your immune system mistakenly identifies liver cells as “invaders” and attacks them. 
  • Viral infections. Viruses like hepatitis A, B, and C can infect the liver and cause liver disease.
  • Consuming toxins. If you consume substances like alcohol or fat in high quantities, you can develop liver disease. 
  • Cancer. If abnormal cells multiply excessively in the liver, you can develop benign or malignant (cancerous) tumors. 
  • Genetic disorders. Inherited diseases like Wilson’s disease and hemochromatosis can affect the liver.   

What Are the Symptoms of Liver Disease?

With some types of liver disease, like nonalcoholic liver disease, patients don’t notice any symptoms. In types of liver disease that cause symptoms, they include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Changes in urine or stool color
  • Abdominal pain, particularly on the right side
  • Swelling of the arms and legs
  • Bruising
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue

Doctors diagnose liver disease using blood tests, imaging procedures, and liver biopsies (removing small bits of tissue for analysis). 

What Is Cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis, which is also referred to as cirrhosis of the liver, is life-threatening, late-stage liver disease. It means that scar tissue from liver disease has replaced a significant amount of healthy liver tissue. This permanent damage prevents the liver from working correctly. 

Cirrhosis can block blood flow in the liver and limit its ability to absorb nutrients. The condition can also reduce the production of essential substances made by the liver. 

How Do Doctors Treat Liver Disease?

Doctors use many factors to determine what treatment to prescribe for liver disease, including how far the condition has progressed. Liver disease can be treated with:

  • Lifestyle changes. Reducing the fat in your diet and avoiding alcohol can help with types of liver disease caused by those substances.
  • Medications. Drugs may be used to treat liver disease caused by viral infections such as hepatitis. Doctors also prescribe them for specific inherited conditions like Wilson’s disease. 
  • Liver transplant. If liver disease reaches the point of causing liver failure, a transplant may be necessary.  

Learn About Gastroenterology Care at Baptist Health

Physicians who specialize in the digestive system are called gastroenterologists, and those that further specialize in the liver are called hepatologists. Learn about our world-class gastroenterology services

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