The liver is a vital organ sitting in the upper right part of the abdomen, just under the bottom part of the right rib cage. It is constantly working day and night filtering out wastes and toxins from the blood, processing and controlling the levels of different nutrients among various other activities. As with any part of the body, the liver is prone to many forms of injury and diseases. Despite its remarkable capacity to regenerate when injured, some liver diseases cause permanent damage and is ongoing, eventually leading to liver failure.
What is liver disease?
Liver disease is a broad term used to describe any type of injury to or disease of the liver. Some are acute meaning that it lasts for a short period of time and the liver then recovers. Other diseases are chronic meaning that it is ongoing and can eventually lead to liver failure if it is progressive. There are different types of liver diseases which may be due to a wide range of causes. Liver disease can be fatal depending on the type of disease, how well it can be treated and managed or any other underlying problems which can complicate it.
Types of Liver Disease
The main types of liver disease includes :
- Viral hepatitis which is liver inflammation due to the hepatitis virus. Other microbes like bacteria, fungi and parasites can also cause hepatitis but the hepatitis viruses target the liver specifically.
- Alcoholic liver disease (ALD) is liver damage caused by excessive and long term alcohol use. It is a common form of liver disease seen in alcoholics.
- Fatty liver disease is a liver condition where fat accumulates in the liver tissue. It occurs in people who consume little or no alcohol hence the alternate term of non-alcoholic liver disease.
- Cirrhosis is a late stage liver disease where there is significant scarring of the liver tissue due to any of the other types of liver disease. It can therefore be seen as one stage in the other types of liver disease but will not always occur. Cirrhosis is irreversible.
- Liver cancer is a malignant tumour that develops from the liver tissue. The most common type is hepatocellular carcinoma. If left untreated the cancer can spread to other parts of the body.
Causes of Liver Disease
- Viruses like the hepatitis A, B and C are the main causes of viral hepatitis. There are other less common types of hepatitis viruses.
- Alcohol abuse is the main cause of alcoholic liver disease but can also lower the immune system and predispose a predispose a person to conditions such as viral hepatitis.
- Obesity is a predisposing factor to fatty liver disease especially if the person has diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes), hypertension (high blood pressure) or hyperlipidaemia (high blood fats).
- HIV and AIDS lowers the immune system’s defensive capacity and can increase the risk of contracting liver infections or developing other types of liver disease.
- Cigarette smoking increases the risk of developing any cancer, including liver cancer.
- Parasites like Schistosoma species of worms (bilharzia) can also lead to a chronic liver disease if untreated.
- Radiation exposure particularly to the abdomen in the treatment of certain cancers can cause liver cancer.
- Malnutrition where there is a lack of certain nutrients needed for normal liver function.
- Blood disorders like leukaemia.
- Autoimmune factors are where the body’s immune system attacks the liver tissue.
- Genetic factors where certain damaged or abnormal genes leads to liver disease.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms can vary depending on the type of liver disease, the severity of the condition and the duration that it has existed. Some of the common signs and symptoms that may be seen with different types of liver disease includes :
- Jaundice – yellowish discolouration of the skin and eyes.
- Nausea – feeling the need to vomit.
- Abdominal pain – usually upper right abdominal pain.
- Weight loss – unintentional.
- Fatigue – tiredness.
- Diarrhoea – runny tummy.
- Swelling of the abdomen.
- Loss of appetite.
Severe cases can lead to bleeding disorders, mental dysfunction and even a coma.
Treatment depends on the type of liver disease and the cause. It may involve a wide range of therapeutic measures.
- Vaccines can help prevent viral hepatitis.
- Antiviral medication to destroy the virus.
- Corticosteroids for reducing liver inflammation over the short term.
Other measures are for the treatment of the complications of liver disease. The liver has a remarkable capacity to regenerate and therefore removing the cause where possible and then giving the liver time to heal may be sufficient. If these measures fail then a liver transplant may be necessary.