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Liver Damage: Side Effects & Treatment

Instructor: Alexandra Unfried

Alexandra earned her master's degree in nursing education and is currently a hospital supervisor/administrator.

The liver is the largest gland of the body and assists in the regulation of glucose and protein. When there is a malfunction of the liver, all body systems are affected. This lesson will discuss side effects and treatments of liver damage.

Overview of the Liver

The liver is located in the upper right portion of the abdominal cavity behind the ribs. It receives nutrient-rich blood from the gastrointestinal tract and then stores or converts the nutrients into chemicals to use in other areas of the body for metabolic needs. The liver also removes waste products from the bloodstream and secretes them into bile that will eventually aid the waste in exiting the body.

Location of the liver in the body.
Location of the liver

Liver Damage: Causes & Diagnosis

Hepatotoxins are chemicals, medications, infectious agents, or other toxins that can cause abnormalities in the liver, leading to liver damage. Examples of hepatotoxins include industrial chemicals, alcohol, illegal drugs, prescribed medications, sexually transmitted diseases, cancer, and bacteria or viruses that enter the body, especially with foreign travel. Several diagnostic tests can be done to evaluate for liver damage. These tests include liver function tests (blood tests), liver biopsy, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Damage to the liver can be acute (which is often reversible) and chronic (which is far more common and often not reversible).

Symptoms and Side Effects of Liver Damage

Symptoms of liver damage include weakness, fatigue, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), swelling around the eyes, abdomen, and legs, dark urine, light stools, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Prolonged liver damage will then begin to present itself with flu-like symptoms, weight loss, right upper quadrant pain, bruising, bleeding, hypertension, itching of the skin, and dehydration.

Since the liver is such a large organ and plays such an important role in the body, when it is not functioning correctly, it begins to affect other organs and systems of the body. Hepatic encephalopathy is a side effect that occurs in patients with cirrhosis (severe liver damage). There are issues with brain cognition and personality changes caused by an increased ammonia level in the body due to the liver damage. If not treated, increased ammonia can cause confusion, lethargy, and coma. Working in the medical field one will often see a patient admitted to the hospital with confusion and lethargy. One of the first blood tests done is an ammonia level. If elevated, further tests for liver function are done and often show liver damage.

Abnormal bleeding is another side effect of liver damage. The liver is responsible for making blood clotting factors so when there is damage, bleeding can occur. Portal hypertension is a type of high blood pressure that is caused by increased pressure in the blood vessels in the liver that affect other organs such as the spleen, gallbladder, and gastrointestinal tract. It is important to diagnose portal hypertension, as it is treated differently than regular hypertension. Esophageal varices are one of the complications from portal hypertension. Varices in the esophagus are enlarged veins that are at risk for bleeding and rupture. Ascites is another side effect of liver damage that is caused by portal hypertension. The constriction of blood vessels causes sodium to build up in the body which causes the abdomen to hold excess fluid. Many of the side effects of liver damage are caused by one another. Treatment for each side effect will differ and also be guided by the causes of the liver damage.

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