Liver failure is a condition that occurs when the liver stops working well enough to perform its necessary functions, which includes ridding the body of waste and producing bile. This condition, in most cases, happens gradually over a period of time. However, there is a more rare form of liver failure known as acute liver failure, who’s onset is sudden (in as little as 48 hours) and can be difficult to detect at first. Liver failure is considered a life-threatening condition that requires urgent medical attention.
Types of liver failure include:
- Acute Liver Failure: This occurs when the liver stops functioning within a matter of days or weeks
- Chronic Liver Failure: In this case, damage to the liver occurs over a period of time causing it to eventually stop functioning
Functions of the Liver
Some of the most important functions of the liver include:
- Aiding in food digestion by manufacturing bile
- Transporting oxygen
- Breakdown of saturated fat
- Creating blood proteins
- Filtering out harmful substances from the blood
- Storing glucose
Symptoms of Liver Failure
Some of the common signs and symptoms of liver failure include:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- Pain in upper right quadrant of the abdomen
- Loss of appetite
- Swelling of the belly
- Malaise (general sense of feeling unwell)
- Dark stools and urine
- Easy bleeding
- Hepatic encephalopathy (confusion)
- Feeling sleepy
Causes of Liver Failure
- Acetaminophen Overdose: Taking larger doses of acetaminophen is the most common cause of acute liver failure, which can occur in a span of several days of taking more than the recommended dose.
- Herbal Supplements: These may kill cells in the liver leading to liver failure.
- Viruses: These include Epstein-Barr virus, Hepatitis A, B, and E, and herpes simplex virus.
- Diseases of the ducts in the liver: These conditions include vascular diseases, which can cause blockages in the veins of the liver leading to liver failure.
- Wilson’s disease: This is a genetic condition whereby the body is unable to get rid of copper, which builds up and eventually damages the liver leading to liver failure.
- Cancer: Cancer that either begins in or spreads to a person’s liver can cause it to fail.
- Septic shock: This occurs when there is overwhelming infection in the body, which severely impairs blood flow to the liver, causing its failure.
- Excessive long-term alcohol consumption: Excess alcohol consumption can lead to liver cirrhosis (scarring), lead it to eventually fail.
Diagnosis of Liver Failure
If an individual presents with the above symptoms, it is important to seek medical care immediately. While here, he/she/they will undergo a number of tests in order to have a definite diagnosis of the condition.
These tests include:
- Physical exam
- Blood tests to find out how well the liver is working, and how long it takes the blood to clot.
- Liver function test which measures the enzymes that the liver releases
- Liver biopsy whereby a small tissue of the liver is taken for examination
- CT Scan to take detailed pictures of the body
- Ultrasound to create images of the body organs
Stages of Liver Failure Progression
- Inflammation: This occurs in the early stages whereby the liver may feel tender or inflamed. However, at this stage, an individual may not feel any obvious symptoms.
- Fibrosis: In this stage, scar tissue begins to replace healthy tissue in the inflamed liver, which halts blood flow.
- Cirrhosis: With the build-up of scarring, this prevents the liver from functioning at full capacity, or at any capacity at all.
- End-stage liver failure: Also known as End Stage Liver Disease (ESLD), this occurs when the liver has completely stopped functioning, and the only way to cure the condition is through a liver transplant.
Treatment of Liver Failure
Treatment of liver failure is dependent on if it is acute or chronic, and at what stage of progression it is currently in. For chronic liver failure, treatment includes changes to the individual’s diet and lifestyle, which can include:
- Completely stopping alcohol consumption
- Stopping medication that can cause harm to the liver
- Diet changes which can include less consumption of red meat, cheese and eggs
- Weight loss and/or management
- Clinical control of metabolic risk factors like high blood pressure and diabetes
- Cutting down on salt consumption
For acute (sudden) liver failure, treatment includes:
- Intravenous (iv) fluids to maintain blood pressure circulation
- Medications to aid in flushing toxins out of the body
- Blood glucose (sugar) monitoring
- In both acute and chronic liver failure in the end stage, a liver transplant is usually recommended as the only way to cure the condition.
Complications Associated with Liver Failure
Liver failure can affect a number of organs in the body. For instance, acute liver failure can lead to infections, electrolyte imbalances and bleeding. Without any mode of treatment, both acute and chronic liver failure can be fatal.
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