Failing Suddenly: The Causes of Acute Liver Failure
You have a few organs in your body that, while useful, are not essential to your survival. Lose your pancreas or gallbladder, and you can still have a long, healthy life. Your liver, on the other hand, is a very different matter. Though your liver can take a lot of damage and still keep working to some degree, once the damage is severe enough, severe illness and death become serious concerns.
What is Acute Liver Failure?
There are two basic ways your liver fails. Chronic liver disease can come from alcohol-related liver disease, liver cancer, or another chronic liver disease. The progression of liver disease caused by hepatitis B and C, alcohol abuse, obesity, and chronic high blood pressure can occur over years. Often, people will not notice symptoms during the early stages of chronic liver failure.
The second route to liver failure is more rapid and more frightening. Acute liver failure occurs when another disease or an overdose of a drug like acetaminophen creates a buildup of toxic substances in the liver that damage and destroy healthy liver tissue. Acute liver failure can become life-threatening in a matter of days or weeks depending on the cause.
Can you Recover from Liver Failure?
If caught early enough, some types of liver failure can be treated. Unfortunately for many people, by the time they know they have liver disease, the damage done to liver tissue is so extensive that you may face significant medical challenges or the liver cannot be saved. Even if disease progression is halted, scar tissue can form inside the liver, which will inhibit liver function and impair your body’s normal metabolic processes.
For some people who are facing chronic liver failure, it is possible that a liver transplant could be the answer. Finding a donor can be difficult and time-consuming, so transplantation is sometimes challenging due to the rapid progression of diseases. Whether you are a good candidate for a liver transplant will also depend on whether or not you have other risk factors.
Whether or not you can recover from liver disease depends on how significant the damage to liver tissue is. There are four general stages of liver disease, with the severity of each successive stage reducing your chances of a full recovery.
The initial stage of most liver problems involves swelling of the liver, and you may not even be aware it is happening. The second stage is fibrosis or scarring of the liver. This can inhibit blood flow through the liver, which places further stress on the remaining healthy liver cells. This increased stress can lead to cirrhosis, a condition where extensive scarring prevents the liver from doing its job. In the final stage of liver disease, your liver fails altogether, causing other organs to begin failing as well.
What are the Main Causes of Liver Damage?
Drinking alcohol to excess, autoimmune hepatitis, liver cancer, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and viral hepatitis are all ways that your liver can become severely damaged over time.
Though long-term alcoholism is perhaps one of the most well-known ways to damage your liver, there are other ways for tissue in your liver to become damaged. A short list of the more common causes of liver failure include:
- Wilson's disease
- Budd-Chiari syndrome
- autoimmune hepatitis
- poisonous mushrooms
- liver cancer
- liver adenoma
- hepatitis A
- hepatitis B
- hepatitis C
Toxins and medicines, even over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol, are another source of liver damage. Even if you do not have other risk factors such as a history of alcohol abuse or a hereditary condition like Wilson’s disease or hemochromatosis, it is still possible that you could come into contact with chemicals and toxic compounds that could damage your liver extensively and may even threaten your life.
One potentially surprising and yet common cause of acute liver failure is the misuse of dietary supplements. While supplements can cause liver damage on their own, interactions between medications and substances like St. John’s wort can cause severe damage even to a healthy liver when combined with some fairly common medications. For this reason it is vital that you disclose all herbal supplements you might be taking to your doctor or healthcare provider if you are seeking medical treatment.
Symptoms of Liver Disease
One of the challenges with liver conditions is some of the initial effects can easily be confused with those of other diseases. Loss of appetite or pain and swelling in the abdomen could indicate a whole host of different problems, and the more unique symptoms of liver failure may not show up until later when your condition has gotten more severe. A few of the most recognizable symptoms of liver failure include:
- loss of appetite
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
- abdominal pain
- abdominal swelling
- excessive sleepiness
Confusion and delirium can also be a symptom of liver failure. A condition known as hepatic encephalopathy can occur when your liver fails to properly filter out toxins from your blood. As the buildup of toxic substances in your blood increases, you can begin to experience severe cognitive disruptions.
Diagnosing Liver Problems
Knowing what is happening inside your body can be difficult, especially when symptoms are not severe and could be caused by many different factors. If your healthcare provider believes you may be suffering from liver disease, they may begin with blood tests and studies of your liver enzymes to determine how well your liver is functioning.
If simple blood tests cannot determine what is happening to your liver, imaging tests may be done, or your doctor may request a liver biopsy where a physical sample of your liver tissue is removed from your body so the liver cells themselves can be examined.
Getting Help When You Need It
As is the case with so many different diseases and conditions, liver failure and liver disease can be prevented or treated most effectively when they are caught early. Many people find that they only discover they have a problem with their liver when it is too late, or symptoms have progressed so far that treatment is difficult and expensive.
It is important to know the signs of liver disease, but it is more important to maintain a relationship with your healthcare provider or doctor. For people who don't have regular access to a physician's care, knowing there is a place where you can get care when you need it can be a literal life-saver.
When worrying symptoms appear, it is best to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Sadly, many people do not maintain an ongoing relationship with their primary care physician, let alone specialists that can handle the many diseases and conditions that can arise in the complex systems of your body.
At Cary Gastroenterology, we understand that caring for your digestive tract, especially as you go through the later stages of life, takes more than waiting to address issues when they come up. Taking a proactive approach to your health with regular screenings and checkups is the best way to ensure you are reducing your risk of having something like liver disease go too far before it is addressed.
If you are concerned about symptoms you have been experiencing, or if you just want to take a proactive approach to your digestive health, request an appointment with Cary Gastro today.