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Liver failure

Liver failure means the liver can no longer repair itself after damage or illness, and can no longer carry out its vital work, including filtering the blood.

Liver failure is a life-threatening condition that demands urgent medical care.

Liver failure can develop over a long period of time, or may occur rapidly.

What causes liver failure?

The most common causes of chronic liver failure (where the liver fails over months or years) include:

  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C
  • Long-term excess alcohol consumption
  • Cirrhosis
  • Haemochromatosis (an inherited disorder that causes the body to absorb and store too much iron)
  • Malnutrition

The causes of acute liver failure, when the liver fails rapidly, are often different. These include:

  • Paracetamol overdose
  • Viruses including hepatitis A, B, and C (especially in children)
  • Reactions to certain prescription and herbal medications
  • Ingestion of poisonous wild mushrooms.

What are the symptoms of liver failure?

The initial symptoms of liver failure are often ones that may be due to any number of conditions. Because of this, liver failure may at first be difficult to diagnose. Early symptoms include:

As liver failure progresses, however, the symptoms become more serious, requiring urgent care. These symptoms include:

How is liver failure treated?

If detected early enough, acute liver failure caused by an overdose of paracetamol can sometimes be treated and its effects reversed. If a virus causes liver failure, supportive care can be given in hospital to treat the symptoms until the virus runs its course. In some cases, the liver will recover on its own.

Treatment for infection or blood clotting problems may be given. Supportive treatment may also be needed to minimise damage to the brain and kidneys.

For liver failure that is the result of long-term deterioration, the initial treatment goal may be to save whatever part of the liver is still functioning. If this is not possible, then a liver transplant is needed. Fortunately, liver transplant is a common procedure that is often successful.

How can liver failure be prevented?

The best way to prevent liver failure is to limit your risk of developing cirrhosis or hepatitis. Here are some tips to help prevent these conditions:

Seek advice about whether you should be immunised against hepatitis A (usually for travel), or hepatitis B (if you are in an at-risk group).

  • Eat a balanced diet including all of the food groups.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. Avoid alcohol when you are taking paracetamol.
  • Practise good hygiene. Since germs are commonly spread by manual contact, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly after you go to the toilet. Also, wash your hands before you touch any food.
  • Don't handle any blood or blood products.
  • Don't share any personal toiletry items, especially toothbrushes and razors.
  • If you get a tattoo or body piercing, make sure to choose a reputable facility with good hygiene and proper sterilising equipment.
  • Make sure you use protection ( condoms) when having sex.
  • If you use illegal intravenous drugs, don't share needles or other drug-use equipment with anyone.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on August 08, 2014

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