Common Characteristics of Liver Disease

What are some common liver disease symptoms?

When diagnosing liver disease, the physician looks at the patient's symptoms and conducts a physical examination. In addition, the physician may request a liver biopsy, liver enzyme tests, an ultrasound, or a CT scan (computed tomography scan).

Some common liver disease symptoms include the following, each of which are described briefly below:

  • jaundice
  • cholestasis
  • liver enlargement
  • portal hypertension
  • ascites
  • liver encephalopathy
  • liver failure

What is jaundice?

Jaundice is a yellow discoloration of the skin, mucous membranes, and whites of the eyes due to an abnormally high level of bilirubin (bile pigment) in the bloodstream, which is then excreted through the kidneys. High levels of bilirubin may be attributed to inflammation or other abnormalities of the liver cells, or blockage of the bile ducts. Sometimes jaundice is caused by the breakdown of a large number of red blood cells, which can occur in newborns. Jaundice is usually the first sign, and sometimes the only sign, of liver disease.

What is cholestasis?

Cholestasis means any condition in which bile flow is reduced or stopped. "Chole" refers to bile and "stasis" means "keeping at the same level." Bile flow may be blocked inside the liver, outside the liver, or in both places. Symptoms may include the following:

  • jaundice
  • nausea or vomiting
  • dark urine
  • pale stool
  • bone loss
  • easy bleeding
  • itching
  • small, spider-like blood vessels visible in the skin
  • enlarged spleen
  • fluid in the abdominal cavity
  • chills
  • pain from the biliary tract or pancreas
  • enlarged gallbladder

Some causes of cholestasis include:

  • hepatitis
  • metabolic liver diseases
  • drug effects
  • a stone in the bile duct
  • bile duct narrowing
  • tumors or cysts
  • biliary atresia
  • inflammation of the pancreas
  • pregnancy
  • primary sclerosing cholangitis

What is liver enlargement?

Liver enlargement (hepatomegaly) is usually an indicator of liver disease. There are usually no symptoms associated with a slightly enlarged liver. Symptoms of a grossly enlarged liver include abdominal discomfort or "feeling full."

What is portal hypertension?

Portal hypertension is abnormally high blood pressure in the portal vein, which brings blood from the intestine to the liver. Portal hypertension may be due to increased blood pressure in the portal blood vessels or resistance to blood flow through the liver. Portal hypertension can lead to the growth of new blood vessels (called collaterals) that connect blood flow from the intestine to the general circulation, bypassing the liver. When this occurs, substances that are normally removed by the liver pass into general circulation. Symptoms of portal hypertension may include:

  • a distended abdominal cavity (ascites)
  • bleeding of the varicose veins at the lower end of the esophagus and in the stomach lining

What is ascites?

Ascites is fluid build-up between the tissues lining the abdomen and abdominal cavity caused by fluid leaks from the vessels on the surface of the liver and intestine. Ascites due to liver disease usually accompanies other liver disease characteristics such as portal hypertension. Symptoms of ascites may include a distended abdomen, which causes discomfort and shortness of breath.

What is liver encephalopathy?

Liver encephalopathy is the deterioration of brain function and damage to the nervous system due to toxic substances building up in the blood, which are normally removed by the liver. Liver encephalopathy is also called portal-systemic encephalopathy, hepatic encephalopathy, or hepatic coma.

Symptoms may include:

  • changes in logical thinking, personality, and behavior
  • mood changes
  • impaired judgment
  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • sluggish speech and movement
  • disorientation
  • loss of consciousness
  • coma
  • seizures (rare)
  • muscle stiffness or tremors
  • uncontrollable movement

What is liver failure?

Liver failure is severe deterioration of liver function. Liver failure occurs when a large portion of the liver is damaged due to any type of liver disorder. Symptoms may include:

  • jaundice
  • tendency to bruise or bleed easily
  • ascites
  • impaired brain function (encephalopathy)
  • poor weight gain and growth
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhea

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