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Liver Disease FAQs

Reviewed by Jay W. Marks, MD

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Q:Liver disease refers to any abnormal process that affects the liver. True or False?


Liver disease is a general term that refers to any abnormal process (infection, poisoning, or cancer, for example) that affects liver tissues. Without the functions of the liver, the body cannot sustain life. When about three quarters of the liver tissue is severely damaged, the liver will begin to fail and the patient may need a liver transplant.

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Q:What is/are the most common cause(s) of chronic liver disease in the U.S?

A:Alcohol abuse.

Alcohol abuse is common in North America and is responsible for the largest number of people with chronic liver disease (cirrhosis). Alcohol can cause liver inflammation (alcoholic hepatitis) and cirrhosis, which results in scarring of the liver.

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Q:What is a main symptom of liver disease?


Jaundice, seen as yellowing of the skin and the "whites" of the eyes (sclera) in patients, is due to a buildup of bilirubin (BILL-eh-roo-bin). Normally, bilirubin is removed from the blood by the liver and excreted into the stool via the bile duct. Bilirubin buildup occurs because the liver fails to remove bilirubin from the blood. In addition to the yellowing of the skin and the sclera, the excess bilirubin is excreted in the urine and turns urine dark, and the patient's stool becomes clay-colored because it does not contain normally excreted bilirubin.

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Q:The liver is the largest solid organ inside the body. True or False?


The largest solid organ in the body is the liver. It is also considered to be a gland because it makes and secretes bile.

In addition, it has many other functions such as detoxification, metabolism of drugs, and synthesis of blood-clotting proteins.

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Q:Besides excessive alcohol intake, what other substances can cause liver disease?

A:Acetaminophen, mushrooms and statins.

Unfortunately, there are many compounds that can cause liver disease. Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) can cause liver failure (acute liver failure) that may result in death if not treated promptly. Other compounds such as statins (cholesterol-lowering medications) or certain antibiotics can cause liver inflammation and ultimately liver failure. Poisonous mushrooms, when eaten, have toxins that can cause lethal liver failure. Other compounds may cause hepatitis and/or cirrhosis.

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Q:Is hepatitis a form of liver disease?


The term hepatitis means "inflammation of the liver," and liver cells can become inflamed for many reasons, including alcohol, drugs, toxins, and infections. Recall from question 1: Liver disease is any abnormal process that affects the liver.

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Q:What is the name of late-stage chronic liver disease?


Cirrhosis is considered to be a late stage of liver disease and is usually associated with long-term chronic inflammation and repair mechanisms that lead to formation of scar tissue that replaces damaged and dying liver cells.

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Q:How is cirrhosis is most accurately (definitively) diagnosed?

A:Liver biopsy.

Liver biopsy is the definitive diagnostic test for cirrhosis; the patient's history, physical exam, and blood tests may yield a presumptive diagnosis.

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Q:What is the most common type of chronic viral hepatitis in the U.S?

A:Hepatitis C is the most common cause of chronic viral hepatitis in the U.S.

Hepatitis C is passed from person to person sexually, particularly through male homosexual activities and by use of illicit, injectable drugs. It also may be passed from mother to infant at the time of birth. Hepatitis B is the second most common cause of chronic hepatitis in the U.S.

Hepatitis D is a chronic viral infection of the liver but occurs only in a small proportion of individuals with chronic hepatitis B. Hepatitis A and E cause primarily acute hepatitis and not chronic hepatitis.

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Q:What important functions are affected by severe, acute, or chronic liver disease?

A:Important functions the liver provides to the body are synthesis of blood clotting mechanisms, removal or deactivation of drugs and toxins in the blood, and manufacture of blood proteins.

The liver also secretes bile into the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Symptoms of problems with liver functions include jaundice, easy or excessive bleeding or bruising, and/or encephalopathy (brain dysfunction).

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Q:Of people who overuse alcohol, how many develop fatty liver disease?

A:About 90% to 100% of the more than 15 million people who overuse or abuse alcohol have fatty liver disease.

Many patients with fatty liver disease have no symptoms until late in the disease when inflammation and scarring has accumulated and compromised some of the liver functions. Other problems that can lead to fatty liver disease include obesity, diabetes, certain medications, viral infections, autoimmune disease, rapid weight loss, and malnutrition, but all of these occur less frequently than fatty liver caused by alcohol consumption.

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Q:The liver is part of the body's digestive system. True or false?


In addition to its other functions, the liver is considered part of the digestive system since it secretes bile to help process foods. Organs considered to be part of the digestive system include the salivary glands, mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, colon, rectum, and anus.

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Q:Liver tissue does not feel pain. True or false?


Liver tissue itself does not perceive pain. The liver tissue can be cut, burned, or crushed without causing pain since the liver tissue contains no pain-sensing nerves. However, the liver capsule (thin layer of tissue that surrounds the liver) does contain pain-sensing fibers that are stimulated when the capsule tissue is stretched. This capsule tissue is stretched when there is some accumulation of fluid and/or inflammatory cells within the liver.

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Q:How much does the average adult liver weigh?

A:The average adult liver weighs about 3.5 pounds (or 1.6 kg).

It's about 8 inches wide, about 6.5 inches in length, and about 4.5 inches thick. It's divided into two lobes with the right lobe being about twice as large as the left. The normal liver extends across the upper abdomen past the midline of the body, and is protected in part by the ribs. An enlarged liver (due to chronic liver disease for example) extends further across the midline and extends further down toward the umbilicus (belly button).

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