If people on the street were asked to name the most important organ of the human body, the heart, brain and lungs would come first to most minds. The liver, however, is considered to be the most important organ according to some experts, including well-known medical personality Dr. Oz. It is not surprising the liver ranks so high in importance among medical professionals, given its detoxifying, infection-fighting, energy-storing and digestive abilities.
The hard-working liver labors tirelessly in the right upper quadrant of our abdomen, and given its low-key nature (no throbbing, pulsing or breathy sounds), it’s easily forgotten. In fact, the liver rarely even causes pain in the absence of a serious condition. Knowing the earliest signs and symptoms of liver disease is imperative in seeking timely medical treatment and intervention.
Facts About Liver Disease
According to the American Liver Foundation, at least 10 percent of Americans have some form of liver disease. Additionally, the American Liver Foundation reports that hepatitis C, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and liver cancer are all occurring with greater incidence.
Alcohol abuse, hepatitis viruses and obesity – all considered highly preventable – are the leading three risk factors for death from liver disease. Other causes of liver disease include cancer, autoimmune diseases and genetic or metabolic disorders.
Sadly, symptoms of many liver disorders do not manifest until serious – sometimes irreversible – damage has occurred. A population-based study found that 69 percent of adults with cirrhosis were unaware of having liver disease. Another study found Hispanic Americans and African Americans are at more risk for developing liver disease than Caucasians.
Hispanic Americans have greater risk due to heavier drinking and higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes, while African-Americans have a higher prevalence of obesity, diabetes and hepatitis B or C.
Non-Alcoholic Liver Disease
When people refer to liver diseases or damage not caused by excessive alcohol use, they’re usually referring to a non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, also known as NAFLD. This condition leads to an excess fat gathering in the liver.
Damage caused by NAFLD presents signs and symptoms similar to liver disease by alcohol abuse. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is an umbrella term, with the most common form simply named fatty liver. Causes of fatty liver include:
- High levels of fat in the blood
Fatty liver usually does not have symptoms and is reversible with lifestyle changes.
A more advanced NAFLD condition is non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). In this condition, the fat growth is associated with liver cell inflammation and varying degrees of scarring to the organ. NASH is a serious condition, and may lead to severe scarring of the liver as well as cirrhosis.
Alcoholic Liver Disease
Many people have heard of signs and symptoms of alcoholic liver disease such as jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes), fatigue and digestive issues.
Less commonly known signs and symptoms of alcoholic liver disease include:
- Skin conditions such as itchiness, eczema and psoriasis
- Bad reactions to medications such as antibiotics or pain relievers
- Frequent heartburn and acid reflux
Additionally, alcohol abusers might notice significant decreases in their alcohol tolerance, becoming inebriated more quickly than usual. Alcohol abusers might also suffer more severe hangovers than usual as liver disease develops.
Stages And Early Symptoms Of Liver Disease Among Alcoholics
The American Liver Foundation names three types of alcoholic liver disease. These are – in order of most to least severe – alcoholic cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic fatty liver disease. The signs and symptoms of these may overlap.
Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
This disease happens when fat builds up in the liver, which causes swelling and impairs liver function. Alcoholic fatty liver disease can occur even after a short period of heavy drinking. Symptoms are not usually present in this stage, though the American Liver Foundation reports some may feel weak or fatigued, or notice discomfort in the right upper abdomen.
With cessation of alcohol use, drinkers can usually reverse liver disease in this stage. If drinking continues, damage to the liver will not subside and will result in irreversible disease.
This condition can manifest after long-term drinking. This involves inflammation and scarring of the liver, which prevents blood flow in the organ, slowing its essential functions. Even though alcoholic hepatitis might be diagnosed as “mild,” it is a serious condition requiring abstinence from adult beverages. Severe alcoholic hepatitis can be life-threatening.
The mildest forms of alcoholic hepatitis might not present any signs or symptoms. As the condition advances, signs and symptoms might include:
- Low-grade fever
- Loss of appetite
- Tenderness in the right upper abdomen
- Weight loss
Liver function tests will also reveal elevated liver enzymes. Severe alcoholic hepatitis may lead to abdominal fluid accumulation, cognitive and behavioral changes, and liver or kidney failure. It is imperative you seek medical advice and intervention at this stage.
This condition is not reversible, though abstinence from alcohol may prevent further damage and improve some signs and symptoms. In this type of liver disease, severe scarring of the liver is present. People with alcoholic cirrhosis will almost certainly be dependent on alcohol and require medical treatment and a great deal of support. A person suffering from alcohol-related cirrhosis who continues to drink has less than a 50 percent chance of living for five more years.
Getting The Help You Need
Knowing the signs and early symptoms of liver disease is imperative in getting a timely intervention. If you or a loved one is experiencing early alcoholic liver disease symptoms, professional assistance may be needed to intervene.
We want to help. Contact us today to have a professional interventionist you through the process of accepting help for alcohol abuse.