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What You Should Know About Hepatic Failure

What Is Hepatic Failure?

The liver is the second largest organ in the body and performs several different functions in the body. The liver processes everything you eat and drink. Your liver converts food and drinks into energy and nutrients for your body to use. It filters out harmful substances, like alcohol, from your blood, and it is responsible for helping your body to fight off infections.

When your liver is damaged, you may suffer from hepatic, or liver, failure. Exposure to viruses or harmful chemicals can harm the liver. In those with liver damage, the liver may eventually stop functioning correctly.

Liver failure is an extremely serious condition, and you should receive treatment immediately.

Types of Hepatic Failure

Liver failure can be either acute or chronic.

Acute Liver Failure

Acute liver failure strikes fast. You will experience loss of liver function within weeks or even days. Acute liver failure may happen suddenly and without any previous warnings or symptoms. Common causes of acute liver failure include poisoning from mushrooms or drug overdose, which can occur from taking too much acetaminophen (Tylenol).

Chronic Liver Failure

Chronic liver failure happens much slower. It can take months or even years before you exhibit any symptoms. Chronic liver failure is often the result of cirrhosis, which is usually caused by long-term alcohol usage. Cirrhosis occurs when healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue.

During chronic liver failure, your liver becomes inflamed. This inflammation causes the formation of scar tissue over time. As your body continuously replaces healthy tissue with scar tissue, your liver begins to fail.

There are three types of alcohol-related liver failure:

  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease is the result of fat cells deposited in the liver. It generally affects those who drink a lot of alcohol and those who are obese.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis is characterized by fat cells in the liver, inflammation, and scarring. According to the American Liver Foundation, up to 35 percent of heavy drinkers will develop this condition.
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis is considered the most advanced out of the three types. The American Liver Foundation says cirrhosis affects 10 to 20 percent of heavy drinkers.

Causes of Hepatic Failure

Acute liver failure, also known as fulminant hepatic failure, can occur even if you do not have a preexisting liver disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose is the most common cause of acute liver failure in the United States. Acetaminophen is an over-the-counter drug, so you should follow the recommended dosage noted on the label. See your doctor immediately if you think that you may have overdosed.

Acute liver failure may also be caused by:

  • certain prescription medicines
  • some herbal supplements
  • viral infections, such as hepatitis, including hepatitis A, B, and C
  • toxins
  • certain autoimmune diseases

It is possible to develop liver failure without being able to identify the exact cause.

Acute liver failure can also be genetic. You can get an abnormal gene from one or both of your parents. If you suffer from a genetic liver disease, you are more susceptible to liver failure.

Chronic liver failure is usually a result of cirrhosis or alcohol-related liver disease. Alcoholism is considered the most common cause of cirrhosis in the United States.

Usually, your liver breaks down any alcohol that you consume, but if you drink too much your liver is unable to keep up. Toxic chemicals present in alcohol can trigger inflammation in your liver, which can cause your liver to swell. This damage can lead to cirrhosis over time.

If you have hepatitis C, you are at a greater risk of developing chronic liver failure or cirrhosis. The hepatitis C virus is spread through the blood. If the blood from an infected person enters your body, you can catch it. Needle sharing and using dirty needles during tattoos or piercings are ways that hepatitis C can spread.

According to the American Liver Foundation, one in four people with chronic hepatitis C in the United States develop cirrhosis. It is the second leading cause of cirrhosis in the United States.

Symptoms of Hepatic Failure

Symptoms of liver failure may include:

  • nausea
  • a loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • diarrhea
  • jaundice
  • weight loss
  • bruising or bleeding easily
  • itching
  • edema, or fluid buildup in the legs
  • ascites, or fluid buildup in the abdomen

These symptoms can also be attributed to other problems or disorders, which can make liver failure hard to diagnose. Some people don’t have any signs until their liver failure has progressed to a deadly stage. You may be disoriented, drowsy, or even slip into a coma by the time you reach this stage.

If you suffer from alcohol-related liver disease, you may develop jaundice, or a yellowish color of the skin and eyes. Toxins can build up in your brain and cause sleeplessness, lack of concentration, and even decreased mental function. You may also experience an enlarged spleen, stomach bleeding, and kidney failure. Liver cancer can also develop.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you are experiencing problems, seek help from your doctor. If you have a history of alcohol abuse, genetic abnormalities, or other medical conditions be sure to let, your doctor know. Your doctor will be aware of the tests you need. There are several different blood screening tests that can be done to detect any abnormalities in the blood, including abnormalities that may imply liver failure.

If you are suffering from drug poisoning, such as from acetaminophen, your doctor may prescribe medication to reverse the effects. Your doctor may also prescribe medication to stop any internal bleeding.

A biopsy is a common test used to determine liver damage. During a liver biopsy, a small piece of your liver is extracted and examined in a lab. If it is caught early, some liver damage can be reversed. The damaged liver may repair itself or medication can help the repair process.

You are more at risk of fatty liver disease if you are overweight or if you have a diet that is high in fat. Making a lifestyle change to a healthier diet may help. If you have liver damage and drink alcohol, removing alcohol from your diet is also important.

Treatment depends on the stage of the disease. Your doctor may prescribe medications. If only part of your liver is damaged, surgery may be recommended to remove the damaged part. A doctor can also take imaging tests of your liver to look for damage. If the damage is too severe, which can sometimes be the case with fast-acting acute liver failure, a liver transplant may be necessary.

Prevention of Hepatic Failure

One of the easiest ways to prevent liver failure is to moderate your drinking level. The Mayo Clinic recommends that healthy women limit their alcohol consumption to one drink per day. Healthy men over the age of 65 should also limit their alcohol consumption to one drink a day. Men under 65 should consume no more than two drinks per day.

Other preventive measures include:

  • practicing safe sex
  • not engaging in drug use or needle sharing
  • getting vaccinated for hepatitis
  • protecting your skin from toxic chemicals
  • using aerosol spray cans in ventilated areas

You should see your doctor if you have any of the symptoms mentioned. You may not have liver failure, but if you do, early detection is important. Liver failure can be a silent killer because you may not experience symptoms until it is too late. With the proper treatment, you can control liver disease and lead a normal life.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Brian Wu, PhD
Medically reviewed on: Sep 17, 2015: Steven Kim, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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