What is liver disease? Symptoms, causes and prevention

The liver helps remove toxins and in the filtering of blood coming from the intestines which is part of digestion of food. It is the largest glandular organ of the body and it is situated mostly on the top right side of the tummy protected by the rib cage. Disease affecting the liver can lead to scarring and in turn cause liver failure. Liver failure is very serious and can be life-threatening. This guide will explore the main types of liver diseases, highlighting the causes, symptoms and prevention/treatments available.

What is liver disease?

Liver disease refers to any condition that affects the liver. The most common types of liver diseases include:

Viral Hepatitis

There are 5 main types of viral hepatitis (A, B, C, D and E), known to damage the liver. It can affect normal liver function by causing inflammation and damage to the liver. Hepatitis A and E is contracted through the ingestion of contaminated food or water whereas B, C and D are passed from person to person via blood or other bodily fluids such as from mother to baby, the use of contaminated needles and unprotected sex with an infected person.

Fatty liver disease

This refers to a build-up of fat in the liver. It is called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) when caused by being overweight or alcoholic fatty liver disease when caused by alcohol consumption. NAFLD in its early stages isn’t usually harmful but if it progresses it may lead to liver damage including cirrhosis and liver failure.

Autoimmune conditions

These include autoimmune hepatitis and primary biliary cirrhosis. Such conditions cause the immune system to mistakenly attack healthy cells in the liver and bile ducts.

Genetic diseases

Some liver conditions are inherited. These can include haemochromatosis – which causes the body to store too much iron in the liver – and Wilson’s disease – which causes the liver to absorb copper instead of releasing it.

Cirrhosis

This refers to scarring that is present in the liver due to liver damage that was repaired by the body. The more scarring there is, the harder it is for your liver to function normally. Alcohol abuse is the leading cause of cirrhosis in the UK.

Liver failure

This is the result of significant damage to the liver, which causes it to stop functioning correctly. It is a serious condition that can be life-threatening.

What are the symptoms of liver disease?

As there are different types of liver diseases, the symptoms can vary from condition to condition. However, common symptoms associated with liver disease include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Swelling of the legs, ankles, and abdominal area
  • Abdominal pain
  • Itchy skin
  • Dark urine
  • Pale/chalky stools
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite

It is essential to note that the symptoms abovementioned aren’t necessarily a sign of liver disease. However, it is important that you see your GP to assess the cause of such symptoms. Getting regular health checks may also help even if you do not have any symptoms as liver disease doesn’t always cause symptoms in the early stages. This is particularly important if you are at an increased risk of developing liver disease.

What are the causes of liver disease?

The most common causes of liver disease include the following:

  •       Alcohol abuse
  •       Being overweight or obese
  •       Diabetes (type II)
  •       Use of needles that aren’t sterile (shared needles, malpractice from tattooists and piercers)
  •       Unprotected sex
  •       Genetics (some types of liver diseases are inherited)

How to prevent and treat liver disease

Prevention

Some types of liver diseases are chronic and can last for years or even a lifetime. However, you can make small lifestyle changes to reduce symptoms and manage the condition:

Get a hepatitis B vaccine

This is typically given to all children and adults at a high risk of hepatitis B infection or complications from it.  

Reduce your risk of hepatitis B, C and D

Reduce your risk of getting hepatitis B and C by practising safe sex and do not use intravenous drugs.  Ensure that any tattoo, body piercing, medical or dental procedure that you might have is performed only in a hygienic environment with sterilised equipment. Do not share razors or toothbrushes.

Drink alcohol in moderation

If you drink alcohol only do so in moderation and stay within NHS recommended alcohol limits. Alcohol intake can cause severe liver damage and diseases such as cirrhosis.

Maintain a healthy BMI

Stay active and eat a healthy, balanced diet to avoid conditions caused by the accumulation of fats in the liver.

Treatment

The treatment of liver disease depends on the cause of the disease and stage that it is at. Treatments for liver disease include:

  • Antiviral drugs
  • Symptom-specific medications
  • Steroids
  • Surgery
  • Liver transplant

How can I get tested for liver disease?

At a clinic

You can opt for our Active, Core, or Complete health assessment package, as they all include a liver function test that looks for damage to the liver. Our packages consist of in-depth, face-to-face health checks with a Health Assessment Specialist, which you can easily book online at one of over 2,000 mobile clinics available nationwide. You will receive a wide array of other key health markers and a detailed results report sent through the post.

At home

Alternatively, you can opt for one of our home blood test kits, which all include a liver function test and also include 33 key health markers. These include a full blood count, key blood markers, immunity readings, as well as thyroid, liver and kidney function. All you need to do is order your kit, take your own sample, send it back in our pre-addressed return envelope, and wait to receive your results online within 8 days.