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Understanding Liver Failure. Plus: Tips To Maintain A Healthy Liver

Written by Reshma Pathare on Wed, 16 November 2022 — Fact checked by Dr. Lynda Odoh - Anikwe

Key Highlights

  • Liver failure is the loss of liver function; if left untreated, it can be fatal.
  • Abdominal pain, vomiting, pale dark urine, fatigue, loss of appetite, and sleepiness are some of the symptoms of liver failure.
  • There are certain signs of a healthy liver, too, and they indicate that the liver is working well.
  • Since symptoms of liver damage are sometimes unclear, one should know the signs of a healthy liver as well, to ascertain if the liver is working well.
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Do you know which hard-working organ sits in the upper-right portion of our abdomen? It’s the liver, and it helps us live!

The liver is an extremely vital organ and performs a variety of functions, mainly associated with metabolism and toxin filtration. The liver tissue faces a lot of stress daily, and it has the ability to self-repair.

But sometimes, this stress can get too much for the liver to handle; that’s when liver failure symptoms may appear.

The top causes of liver failure are bad lifestyle choices, e.g. heavy alcohol consumption; a viral infection; overdose of some medicine(s); the eating of poisonous mushrooms; or a medical condition called hereditary hemochromatosis.

You must know about both healthy liver signs and liver damage causes to ensure that this vital organ doesn’t develop any irreversible conditions such as liver cirrhosis, which might lead to liver failure.

Liver failure

Liver failure is the term for a condition when the liver is too unwell to fully do its work, such as producing bile, filtering toxins out of the body, and regulating blood sugar levels.

Now, if these extremely important processes are hampered, your overall health will suffer. Untreated liver failure could even become fatal.

Acute liver failure is a life-threatening condition, where sudden massive death of liver cells occurs. This may cause complications like excessive internal bleeding. It may cause a sudden hospitalization. Patients suffering from liver failure face a poor quality of life and are at an increased risk of dying due to liver failure.

Signs and symptoms

Here are some symptoms and signs of liver failure:

  • Fluid retention
  • Skin and eyes became pale yellow (jaundice)
  • Mental confusion
  • Easily bleeding
  • Sleeplessness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Pain in the upper right abdomen
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Risk factors for liver failure

The risk of liver failure can increase due to poor lifestyle choices or other medical conditions.

  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Body piercings and tattoos or the use of shared needles to inject drugs
  • Exposure to the blood and body fluids of others

Risk factors for liver failure

Liver failure diagnosis

The doctor diagnoses liver dysfunctions based on your symptoms, medical history, blood tests (liver function test), urine tests, abdominal imaging, and CT scan of the abdomen or liver.

A biopsy of your liver tissue can be used to diagnose liver disease and examine for symptoms of liver damage. A liver biopsy is often performed with a long needle injected through the skin to remove a tissue sample for testing.

Liver function test

When you have symptoms of liver dysfunction, your doctor will recommend you some liver function tests.

This blood test includes some enzyme tests like alanine transaminase (ALT), aspartate transaminase (AST), alkaline phosphatase (ALP), and gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT), protein tests such as albumin, prothrombin test, and bilirubin test.

With help of these tests, your doctor comes to know if your liver functions are good or if you have any liver disorder.

Causes of acute liver failure

1. Paracetamol overdose

Taking too much acetaminophen commonly causes liver damage. Acetaminophen toxicity is common due to the wider availability of medicine and the general impression of its safety.

Many products contain acetaminophen in combination with other ingredients, including opioids and diphenhydramine. Acute liver failure may occur because of a large dose of paracetamol.

2. Prescribed drug-induced liver damage

When doctors prescribe you medicines for any other health condition, the prescribed medicines can induce liver damage.

Medicines like antibiotics, NSAIDs, anti-epileptics, anti-tuberculosis, over-the-counter drugs, weight loss medicines, anticonvulsants, and herbal dietary supplements can cause liver failure.

Such medicines have an adverse effect on the liver.

3. Viral infections

Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis E, herpes virus, Epstein Barr virus, and cytomegalovirus are some viral infections that can cause acute liver failure.

4. Autoimmune disease

Autoimmune hepatitis is a disorder in which your immune system attacks and destroys liver cells, producing inflammation and injury, which can lead to liver failure.

5. Vascular diseases

Budd-Chiari syndrome is a rare disease that can affect the veins in the liver. In this disease, liver veins get narrowed and blocked. That's why there is less blood supply to the liver and your liver functions get interrupted and cause acute liver disease.

6. Mushroom poisoning

The most prevalent mushroom that causes hepatotoxicity is Amanita phalloides. A patient with a recent mushroom consumption and a history of severe gastrointestinal symptoms like abdominal cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea should be suspected of the diagnosis.

7. Shock

Impaired blood flows to the liver because of sepsis and shock can cause acute liver failure. Extreme physical activity in heat may trigger ALF.

8. Metabolic disease

A rare inherited disorder called Wilson's disease, the accumulation of copper in your liver, brain, and other vital organs causes Wilson's disease. Over-deposition of copper in the liver may cause acute liver failure.

9. Industrial toxins

An industrial toxin that can cause acute liver failure is carbon tetrachloride. It's a chemical that's used in refrigerants and solvents for waxes, varnishes, and other materials. Some other chemicals also may cause acute liver failure.

10. Fatty liver during pregnancy

In some pregnancies, the fat started to deposit on the liver. This rare condition can cause acute liver failure. Mother should not consume alcohol during pregnancy, because that increase fat deposition in the liver, and liver cell may get affected.

11. Cancer

The beginning or spread of cancer to your liver can cause liver failure. A high amount of alcohol consumption may cause scars (fibrosis) and that will lead to liver cancer.

12. Alcohol

Alcohol-related liver disease (ALD) is caused by consuming more alcohol than the liver can process, causing the organ to be damaged.

The chemical reaction that occurs as the liver breaks down the alcohol generates a toxin that damages liver cells. Even if you don't get drunk, consuming too much alcohol consistently causes liver damage. When the liver suffers too much damage, it affects the entire body. ALD can be both preventable and lethal.

Prevent liver failure

Liver failure is usually an exacerbated outcome of other liver diseases. Hence, minimizing the risk of other liver diseases or preventing their progression can help prevent liver failure.

1. Reduce alcohol consumption

One drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men is good for healthy adults. Drink alcohol in moderate amounts. Overconsumption may cause liver diseases.

2. Get vaccinated for hepatitis A and hepatitis B

If you are at high risk of getting hepatitis virus or you have recently been infected, you need to talk to your doctor about getting hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines.

3. Use medicines wisely

Prevent overdose of acetaminophen and follow doctor indications before taking medicines. Avoid mixing medicines and alcohol. Talk to your physician before taking any herbal supplements with prescribed drugs.

4. Keep monitoring your physical health

Yearly physical examination with screening for liver functions, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

5. Maintain your lifestyle, diet, and healthy weight

Obesity may cause nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Change your lifestyle and diet for maintaining a healthy weight.

6. Avoid contact with people’s blood and body fluid

Hepatitis A can be spread by intentional or accidental needle sticks or improper cleanup of blood.

7. Keep your food hot and safe

Always wash your hands before and after handling or eating food. Make sure you are eating cooked and hot food. Use bottled water but if not possible use boiled water.

Have safe sex. Avoid risky behavior

If you are having tattoos or body piercings be cautious about safety and hygiene when you select a shop. Use condoms during sex.

Liver failure diagnosis, test

Diagnosis

The doctor diagnoses liver dysfunctions based on your symptoms, medical history, blood tests (liver function test), urine tests, abdominal imaging, and CT scan of the abdomen or liver.

A biopsy of your liver tissue can be used to diagnose liver disease and examine for symptoms of liver damage. A liver biopsy is often performed with a long needle injected through the skin to remove a tissue sample for testing.

Liver function test

When you have symptoms of liver disease, your doctor will recommend some liver function tests. This blood test includes some enzyme tests like alanine transaminase (ALT), aspartate transaminase (AST), alkaline phosphatase (ALP), and gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT); and protein tests such as albumin, prothrombin test, and bilirubin test.

With the help of these tests, your doctor comes to know if your liver functions are good, or if you have any liver disorder.

Conclusion

Liver failure is a life-threatening disease with a high mortality rate. It is the last stage of all liver diseases. Vomiting, abdominal pain, blood in stool, pale yellowish colored eyes and nails, fatigue, loss of appetite, and change in speech, mood, and behavior all are a sign and symptoms of liver failure.

There are several causes of liver failure such as an overdose of paracetamol, alcohol, viral infections, metabolic disease, mushroom poison, autoimmune disease, shock, industrial toxins, and vascular disease.

reduce the risk of liver failure

To reduce the risk of liver failure, avoid overdosing on paracetamol and alcohol, get vaccinated, healthy diet, and have regular exercise. If you or anyone have symptoms of acute liver failure don’t wait immediately consult your doctor and start treatment.

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Reshma Pathare

Reshma Kulkarni-Pathare has been a self-employed media professional since 1999. Starting off as a Freelance Journalist for Times of India Thane Plus, Reshma went onto write for more than 45 national and international publications including Times of India, New Woman, Femina, Indian Express, The Hindu, BBC Good Homes and many more. While her forte has been lifestyle writing, she is equally proficient in writing health articles. Her health articles have been published in Health International (Dubai), New Woman, Femina, and Mother & Baby.

Apart from being a journalist, Reshma also works as a copy-editor for self-publishing houses and academic journals.

She is an award-winning bi-lingual translator with more than 12 books published in her name.

She has been a Visiting Faculty Member for post-graduate department of mass media at MET College (Mumbai) and Welingkar WeSchool (Mumbai).

She has worked as a Consumer Marketing Insights Researcher for global organizations like CEB Iconoculture (USA) and Gartner (USA).

Consolidating her multifarious skills in the media, in 2021, Reshma launched her own boutique media agency called Talking Turkey Communications, which specializes in content writing, editing, and translation.

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  3. Liver failure
  4. Acute liver failure
  5. Acetaminophen toxicity