The liver is one of the most important organs that helps with digesting food and ridding your body of toxic substances. According to Dr Prashant Shinde, consultant paediatric gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Yashoda Hospitals Hyderabad, liver problems can be caused due to a variety of factors such as viruses, alcohol use, obesity, and inherited (genetic) issues.
“With time, conditions that damage this organ can lead to scarring (cirrhosis), which in turn can cause liver failure, a life-threatening condition. But, early treatment may give the liver time to heal,” he says.
On the occasion of World Liver Day today, Dr Shinde lists four of the most common signs of liver failure and the possible treatments. Read on.
1. Fluid retention
Per the doctor, this is the most common sign of liver disease, appearing in 50 per cent of people who have cirrhosis, a condition in which scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue. Accumulating fluid may cause “distension in your abdomen or swelling in your legs”.
“This happens when high blood pressure develops in your liver veins or when your liver is unable to make albumin protein that prevents leaks from your bloodstream into tissue”.
Treatment options: A low-sodium diet may help alleviate mild fluid retention. For moderate-to-severe retention, your doctor may prescribe diuretics, commonly known as ‘urine pills’. Severe cases often call for paracentesis, using a needle to drain abdominal fluid.
It causes darker urine and a yellowish tint in skin or the whites of your eyes. It happens when bilirubin, a pigment that forms when red blood cells break down, builds up in your bloodstream. A healthy liver absorbs bilirubin and converts it into bile. Your body then excretes it in stool. When the liver is sick, it may not function optimally, the doctor explains.
Treatment options: Jaundice is a one of the signs of liver failure; if you have it, your doctor may evaluate you for a liver transplant depending on the cause.
Dr Shinde says the liver typically cycles about 25 per cent of blood from the portal vein. But cirrhosis creates an opportunity for bleeding. The patient may vomit blood or notice blood in stool or rectal bleeding.
“Usually, the flow through the liver is like driving through a highway — it’s rapid. But, when you have cirrhosis, that highway, because of scarring, becomes a bumpy road. Consequently, the blood tries to find detours, which send it to the spleen that enlarges as it tries to relieve the congestion. Varicose veins may develop in your esophagus and stomach.
“A healthy liver produces clotting proteins. But, a sick liver can’t. An enlarged spleen collects platelets from your bloodstream. A low platelet count makes you more susceptible to nosebleeds and bleeding gums.”
Treatment options: If you’re vomiting blood, go to the emergency room. Doctors will evaluate and stop your bleeding using an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy. If bleeding is severe, they may implant a stent to connect veins running in and out of your liver and create a new pathway for blood.
When your liver is unable to filter toxins, they may travel to your brain. The resulting condition, known as ‘hepatic encephalopathy’, can cause confusion, memory problems, lethargy, and coma.
Treatment options: The standard treatment is the laxative lactulose; it binds to toxins in the colon and flushes them out before they get into your bloodstream. Next level is a liver transplant.
Four tips for keeping your liver healthy:
1. Exercise at least five times a week for at least 30 minutes.
2. Eat a healthy diet that is low in refined sugars, processed foods, sweets, sodas, and refined carbohydrates. Choose fruits, vegetables and high-fibre foods.
3. Avoid alcohol.
4. Maintain a healthy weight.