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Liver Failure


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Jun 2021| Content last modified Jun 2021
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Your liver is an organ in the upper right part of your belly. The liver does many important things:

  • Breaks down chemicals and drugs

  • Makes digestive fluid called bile

  • Produces many important substances, including ones that make your blood clot when you bleed

What is liver failure?

Liver failure is when your liver stops working well. Liver failure can affect one or more of the things your liver does.

  • Liver failure happens when a big part of your liver is damaged

  • Certain diseases, certain medicines, and alcohol can damage your liver

  • People with liver failure may have jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)

  • Treatment for liver failure usually involves treating the cause, a diet of less meat, limited salt, and no alcohol

  • Sometimes a liver transplant is needed

What causes liver failure?

Liver failure happens when a big part of your liver is damaged.

Your liver can be damaged by diseases such as:

  • Viral hepatitis (swelling of the liver caused by a virus)—most commonly hepatitis B

  • Cirrhosis (a liver disease in which normal liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue)

Your liver can also be damaged by taking too much of certain substances:

What are the symptoms of liver failure?

Symptoms of liver failure can include:

  • Feeling tired, weak, or sick to your stomach

  • Jaundice (yellow skin and the whites of the eyes)

  • Bleeding and bruising more easily

  • Swelling in your belly area from fluid building up (ascites)

  • Dizziness and confusion (hepatic encephalopathy)

  • Increased chance of infection because of a weakened immune system

  • Musty, sweet breath

  • Throwing up blood

  • Bloody stool (poop)

Liver failure can happen in just a few days or over several years.

Liver failure can be deadly if it isn’t treated. Even after treatment, liver failure may be permanent.

How can doctors tell if I have liver failure?

Doctors look at:

  • Blood tests to check how well your liver functions and find out what's causing your liver failure

  • Urine tests, blood tests, and chest x-rays to see if your liver failure is affecting other parts of your body

How do doctors treat liver failure?

There are no treatments that actually make your liver get better. However, doctors will have you do things to put less stress on your liver:

  • Not drink alcohol or take medicines that can hurt your liver

  • Eat less red meat, fish, cheese, and eggs

  • Eat more vegetable protein (such as soy)

  • Eat less salt (by avoiding salty foods and by not adding salt to your food)

If your liver gets worse quickly, doctors will treat you in the hospital. Treatment may include:

  • Fluids through a vein to keep your blood pressure up

  • Laxatives (medicine to help you pass stool) or enemas (fluid pushed into your anus and into your intestines to help you pass stool)—helps get rid of poisonous substances (toxins) from your body

  • Glucose (a sugar) given by vein (IV), if you have low blood sugar

  • Blood transfusions or medicine to help your blood clot if you're bleeding

  • Breathing tube and breathing machine (mechanical ventilator) if you have serious trouble breathing

A liver transplant (surgery to remove a failing liver and replace it with a healthy one from a donor) can fix liver function. However, a liver transplant isn’t right for all people with liver failure.

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