About Liver Failure
Liver failure occurs when the liver is unable to function due to irreversible damage. This damage can take place in all or part of the liver and may occur gradually or suddenly, depending on the cause of the damage.
Liver failure is typically the result of damage sustained over the course of many years through alcohol consumption, environmental toxins, or viruses such as hepatitis.
Acute liver failure is defined as sudden, irreversible damage to the liver that occurs quickly, typically within a 48-hour timeframe.
Why it is Problematic
Liver failure- and, especially acute liver failure- is a serious condition. Acute liver failure should always be regarded as a medical emergency. Some causes of acute liver failure can be reversed if diagnosed quickly. Often, a liver transplant is necessary for survival when liver failure or acute liver failure occurs. Liver failure can also cause fluid buildup in the brain (cerebral edema), bleeding disorders, infection, and kidney failure.
Causes and Risk Factors
The most common causes of acute liver failure are acetaminophen overdose, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, prescription or herbal medication overdose, cancer, some autoimmune diseases, and the ingestion of toxic wild mushrooms.
Symptoms of liver failure are often initially generalized and vague and do not directly imply a liver problem. These symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
Symptoms indicative of progressed stages of liver failure that are more serious include:
- Swollen abdomen
- Hepatic encephalopathy
- Severe fatigue
Symptoms of acute liver failure occur suddenly in an otherwise healthy individual. These symptoms include:
- General unwell feeling
- Difficulty concentrating
If two or more of these symptoms occur in an otherwise healthy individual, please seek immediate medical attention.
Doctors use a variety of tests to diagnose liver failure. These tests include:
Blood tests, including liver function tests and a prothrombin time (blood clotting time) test, as liver failure results in blood clotting less quickly than it should.
Diagnostic Imaging, such as ultrasound, CT Scan, and/or MRI
Liver biopsy, as acute liver failure may put patients at risk for bleeding. A transvenous biopsy may be performed. This biopsy entails the insertion of a small tube through a small incision in the neck.
Treatment and Prevention
If caught early, liver failure is treatable. Treating liver failure may also be possible if the damage has been caused by a medication overdose or virus. If liver failure has been caused by a chronic condition, doctors may focus on trying to save any part of the liver that is still functioning. If no part of the liver is recoverable, a liver transplant will be required.
To prevent liver failure, it is essential to prevent liver damage. Liver damage can be avoided by:
- Avoiding alcohol
- Taking medicine and herbal supplements only as directed
- Maintaining a nutritious diet
- Vaccinating for hepatitis A and hepatitis B
- Practicing good hygiene
- Avoiding blood and times with blood on them
- Never sharing toiletry items such as razors or toothbrushes
- Avoiding tattoo or piercing in an unsanitary environment
- Having only protected sex
- Avoiding drugs and, not sharing needles
- Not eating wild mushrooms
- Using caution, including proper ventilation, when handling aerosol sprays
- Using caution with chemicals, paint, insecticides, and fungicides
Individuals with liver failure account for about 5-6% of all liver transplantations in the U.S.