Liver Disease FAQ

For more information on all liver questions, contact us, or refer to the resources section of our website.

Why is the liver important?
The liver is the largest organ in the body and it performs many difficult functions that are essential for life. The liver converts the food we eat into stored energy and chemicals necessary for life and growth. It acts as a filter to detoxify and excrete substances that would otherwise be harmful (like alcohol). It processes medications absorbed from the digestive system and enables the body to use them effectively. The liver also creates and exports important chemicals used by the body. It is impossible to live without the liver and its health plays a major role in your quality of life.

How many people suffer from chronic liver disease?
According to the American Liver Foundation, in the U.S. liver disease is estimated to affect 30 to 50 million people, or more than 1 in 10 U.S. citizens. Worldwide, liver disease affects an estimated 500 million people.

What causes liver disease?
There are many causes, such as drug and alcohol abuse, viruses, hereditary defects, reactions to drugs and chemicals, and hygiene to name a few.

What are some of the symptoms of liver disease?
The most important thing to recognize about liver disease is that up to 50 percent of individuals with liver disease have no symptoms. The most common symptoms are very non-specific and they include fatigue or excessive tiredness, lack of drive, and occasionally itching. Signs of liver disease that are more prominent are jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes and skin, dark urine, very pale or light colored stool or bowel movements, bleeding from the GI tract, mental confusion, and retention of fluids in the abdomen or belly.

What are the most common chronic liver diseases?
There are more than 100 different liver diseases. The most common chronic liver diseases are Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Non-alcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH), Alcoholic Liver Disease (Laennec’s cirrhosis), and Autoimmune diseases (Autoimmune hepatitis, Primary Biliary Cirrhosis, and Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis).

Can liver damage be reversed?
The liver is the only organ in the body that is able to regenerate. Most organs in the body replace damage with scar tissue, but the liver is able to replace damaged tissue with new cells. However, the long-term complications of liver disease occur when regeneration is either incomplete or prevented by progressive development of scar tissue within the liver. This occurs when the damaging agent (a virus, drug, alcohol, etc.) continues to attack the liver and prevents complete regeneration. Severe scaring is called cirrhosis.

What is cirrhosis?
Cirrhosis is the scarring of the liver caused by a long-term damaging agent, such as excessive alcohol intake or chronic viral hepatitis. The development of cirrhosis indicates late stage liver disease and impairs function of the liver. People with cirrhosis often experience loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and weight loss.

Can poor nutrition cause liver disease?
With the exception of alcoholic liver disease, and liver disease found in starving populations, poor nutrition is generally not a cause of liver disease. It is much more likely that poor nutrition is a result, rather than a cause, of chronic liver disease.

How important are hepatitis vaccines?
There are vaccines to prevent Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B. Most of the time in the U.S. these vaccines are received during childhood. Adults who are in high-risk occupations such as the health care field or carry out high-risk activities, such as IV drug use or have multiple sex partners should be vaccinated.

Is Hepatitis C caused only by an exchange of bodily fluid?
The majority of patients with Hepatitis C are found to have a risk factor such as needle exposure, blood exposure, tattooing, body piercing, or sexual exposure which would allow for an exchange of blood or bodily fluids. A small percentage of patients have no identifiable risk factor and presumably acquired the disease through inadvertent exposure such as sharing a razor.

What are esophageal varices?

Varices are veins that are enlarged or swollen. The esophagus is the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. When enlarged veins occur on the lining of the esophagus, they are called esophageal varices.