Liver disease (mate ate hauā) can be inherited or caused by damage to the liver such as from infection, alcohol use and obesity. Over time, damage to the liver causes scarring (cirrhosis), which can lead to life-threatening liver failure.
Why is our liver important?
The liver is the largest organ in our body and sits just under your rib cage on the right side of your abdomen. It performs many important functions involved in digesting foods and ridding your body of toxic substances such as:
- producing bile to help break down food in the gut
- breaking down harmful substances such as alcohol from the body
- storing nutrients and vitamins
- regulating the levels of many hormones and substances in the body such as cholesterol
- fighting infections and disease.
What are the causes of liver disease?
There are many different types of liver diseases or disorders, caused by a variety of factors. The following are examples of the common causes of liver disease:
|Causes||Type of liver disease|
|Obesity or overweight (BMI > 30)
|Immune system abnormality
What are the symptoms of liver disease?
The common symptoms of liver disease include:
- skin and eyes appear yellow (jaundice)
- abdominal pain and swelling of the abdomen (tummy area)
- itchy skin
- dark coloured urine and pale coloured poo (stools)
- weakness, feeling tired, weight loss
- tendency to bruise easily.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any persistent signs or symptoms that worry you. Seek immediate medical attention if you have abdominal pain that is so severe that you can't stay still.
How can liver disease be prevented?
Not all types of liver disease can be prevented, such as those due to genetic causes or immune system abnormalities. But some types of liver disease, especially those related to lifestyle choices, can be prevented.
Avoiding excessive consumption of alcohol is an important first step in looking after your liver. Both men and women can get liver damage from excessive alcohol. Current recommendations are for no more than 2 standard drinks/day for women and 3 for men, with at least 2 alcohol-free days each week.
Approximately 75% of obese people have a fatty liver. If you are overweight or obese, gradual weight loss and increasing exercise can reduce your risk of developing a fatty liver. Avoid rapid weight loss of more than 1 kilogram per week, as this can make liver disease worse.
Cigarette smoking may worsen some liver diseases and may increase your risk of developing liver cancer. Smoking impairs the liver’s ability to process medications, alcohol and other toxins and remove them from the body.
If you're at increased risk of contracting hepatitis or if you've already been infected with any form of the hepatitis virus, talk to your doctor about getting the hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines.
Practice safe sex
It’s not just HIV and other sexually transmitted infections you need to worry about with unsafe sex. Hepatitis B and C can both be contracted through unprotected vaginal or anal sex. The risk is increased during menstruation and with multiple sex partners.
Avoid risky behaviour
Intravenous drug use is a common way of contracting Hepatitis B and C, especially if needle sharing in involved. Sharing personal items like a toothbrush or razor blade with others can also transmit Hepatitis B and C.
Use medications wisely
Talk to your GP before mixing prescription medicines and herbal or dietary supplements. Only take prescribed or recommended doses and avoid alcohol while taking medications.
Liver disease NHS Choices
|Derek is a consultant gastroenterologist at Counties Manukau Health and has also been in private practice since 2011. He has a broad interest in general gastroenterology and hepatology and has a subspecialty interest in pancreatic and hepatobiliary disease. He speaks Mandarin and Cantonese and is passionate about doing his bit for the Chinese community. He has been actively involved with the Auckland Chinese Medical Association for the past seven years as well as being on several committees with an interest in Asian Health.|