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The liver is an important part of the human digestive system. It is a wedge-shaped organ that is located below the diaphragm, in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. It is a large organ, with a width of about 6 inches and a weight of about 3 pounds.
The liver has hundreds of different functions, including producing hormones and chemicals necessary for growth and digestion, filtering and detoxifying various metabolites in the body, regulating the storage of glycogen for energy, destroying old red blood cells, and producing bile to breakdown fats. With all these important roles, it is important for the liver to stay healthy and well-functioning. If liver disease or dysfunction occurs, it can impact almost every organ and system in the body. If left untreated, liver disease can progress to liver failure, which is a life-threatening condition.
Causes of liver disease
Risk factors for liver disease include excessive alcohol use, obesity, type 2 diabetes, tattoos or body piercings, intravenous drug use, exposure to other people’s body fluids, unprotected sex, a blood transfusion received before 1992, and a family history of liver disease.
Symptoms of liver disease
Most cases of liver disease, regardless of the cause, will present with similar symptoms:
- Pale-colored stool
- Dark urine
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- Swelling of the abdomen, legs, ankles, and feet
- Excessive fatigue
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Pain near the location of the liver
Diagnosis of liver disease
Liver disease is diagnosed using blood tests to evaluate the function of the liver. A physical examination of the liver, as well as imaging tests such as an ultrasound or a CT scan, may also be used. A liver biopsy may be needed for further evaluation.
Pregnancy-specific liver disease
Roughly 3% of women are affected by some type of liver disease during pregnancy. Liver disease can occur during pregnancy due to a pre-existing or underlying health issue or due to the pregnancy itself. Regardless of the cause, liver disease during pregnancy can cause harm to the mother and baby.
Liver diseases that are specific to pregnancy include:
- Hyperemesis gravidarum – severe nausea and vomiting that leads to dehydration and weight loss
- Acute fatty liver of pregnancy (AFLP) – fatty deposits in the liver that usually occurs during the third trimester; AFLP is a medical emergency
- Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP) – a condition in which bile builds up in the liver, causing bile acids to accumulate in blood and other body tissues leading to severe itching; ICP is the most common pregnancy-related liver disease
- Hemolysis and elevated liver enzymes and low platelets (HELLP) syndrome – dangerously elevated blood pressure along with impaired liver function and decreased blood-clotting abilities
Common liver diseases that are not uniquely specific to pregnancy include cirrhosis and portal hypertension, chronic hepatitis B and C, autoimmune disease of the liver, and drug-induced hepatitis.
Keeping the liver healthy
Every food, drink, and medicine that goes into your body passes through your liver, so pay attention to what you put in your body.
The best way to prevent liver disease is to lead a healthy, active lifestyle:
- Maintain a healthy body weight
- Eat a balanced diet
- Stay hydrated
- Get plenty of exercise
- Avoid exposure to toxins as much as possible
- Use alcohol in moderation (and not at all while you’re pregnant)
- Avoid the use of illicit drugs
- Don’t use dirty needles for injecting medications, body piercings, tattooing, or any other reason
- Seek medical care if you are exposed to or come in contact with someone else’s blood
- Don’t share personal hygiene items such as razors, nail clippers, or toothbrushes
- Practice safe sex to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like hepatitis B and C
- Wash your hands often
- Follow the directions on all over-the-counter and prescription medications
- Ask your doctor or pharmacist for information on herbal and dietary supplements, as some of these can harm your liver
- Stay up-to-date on vaccines, including those for hepatitis A and B
Liver disease during pregnancy is complex and challenging to treat. If you already have liver disease, speak to your doctor before getting pregnant to make sure that you manage your condition to keep yourself and your baby safe and healthy.