9 Signs Your Liver Might Be in Trouble
If any (or all) of these signs sound familiar, it might be time to visit your doctor.
Your eyes turn yellow
“Yellow eyes are a sign your liver isn’t doing very well and is probably the most specific sign of liver disease,” says KV Narayanan Menon, MD, medical director of liver transplantation at Cleveland Clinic. A yellow colored substance called bilirubin is usually broken down by the liver so it can be removed from the body, but when the liver is struggling it can cause bilirubin to build up, leading to yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin known as jaundice. Jaundice can be caused by a number of health issues, including a viral infection, a blocked bile duct (usually due to a gallstone), a reaction to a toxic drug or medicine, liver disease, or conditions that cause an excessive breakdown of red blood cells. (Don’t miss these 10 signs of disease that are written all over your face.)
Your belly fills with fluid
If your belly suddenly balloons and doesn’t stop, it could be more than ordinary bloating. “Increased pressure within the blood vessels around the liver can lead to fluid buildup in the abdomen,” says Dr. Menon. It’s important to see a doctor, who will be able to tell you if you’re bloated from gas, food, or fluid. Here are the 13 surprising ways you’re hurting your liver without even knowing.
You have hepatitis A, B, or C
When certain viruses or parasites infect the liver, it can cause inflammation and reduced liver function. The most common types of liver infection are the hepatitis viruses; A is spread by coming into contact with a contaminated person’s feces or by ingesting compromised food and drink, while B and C are most commonly transmitted through blood, sex, or contact with other bodily fluids. Hepatitis A infections tend to go away on their own, while hepatitis B and C tend to be chronic conditions. “There are some really good treatments out there if you have hepatitis C, so people should get tested,” says Dr. Menon. Talk to your doctor about what other steps you can take to keep your liver as healthy as possible. Make sure you know the silent signs of liver cancer you should never ignore.
You can’t stop itching
Believe it or not, a sick liver can cause itching all over your body. “We don’t know for sure, but it’s thought to be related to bile salt,” says Dr. Menon. Bile is a digestive substance produced by the liver, but in people with primary biliary cirrhosis (an autoimmune liver disease that causes the bile duct to collapse), that bile can accumulate and cause noticeable symptoms, like itching. Aside from liver disease, here are 10 more things your itchy skin can reveal about your health.
You’re constantly tired
Persistent fatigue is sometimes a sign that something’s not right in your body. While it can have many causes, many of them relatively harmless (like not enough sleep), liver disease can also cause fatigue. A 2018 study published in the journal Liver International found an association between fatigue in chronic liver disease and depression and anxiety, so if it’s persistent, it’s an important symptom to get in check with the help of your doctor.
You’re a heavy drinker
Excessive, chronic alcohol use can do a real number on your liver over time, eventually leading to liver disease. The liver helps rid your body of chemicals and toxins, so consistently consuming high levels of alcohol means it’s working overtime. (Watch out for these fatty liver symptoms that could lead to disease.)
Being overweight or obese affects more than how you look in the mirror. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is on the rise, especially in people in their 40s and 50s, and basically means fat has built up within the organ, according to the Liver Foundation. Sometimes, this leads to cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver. The good news is, you can manage or change the factors that raise your risk of developing the fatty liver disease, such as obesity, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.
You’re confused or forgetful
While a little forgetfulness isn’t uncommon, if you suddenly seem to misplace everything or feel easily confused and already know you have advanced liver disease, don’t write it off as a harmless lapse. Hepatic encephalopathy is a condition that can occur when the liver is unable to properly remove toxins from the body and typically occurs in patients with chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, or hepatitis, reports the American Liver Foundation. It’s very rare. If you notice these symptoms, see a doctor immediately. (Beware of these silent signs that mean your body could be in big trouble.)
- KV Narayanan Menon, MD, medical director of liver transplantation at Cleveland Clinic.
- Liver International: "Fatigue in chronic liver disease."
- American Liver Foundation: "Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease."
- American Liver Foundation: "Hepatic Encephalopathy."