Symptoms of liver disease

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article

As there are over 100 diseases that can affect the liver, it isn’t surprising that there’s a wide variety of symptoms.

Not only are the symptoms varied, they also differ in intensity and severity from almost negligible to life-threatening.

Some liver problems can resolve themselves and leave no lasting damage. The liver can regenerate itself up to a point, but once cirrhosis (liver damage in which scar tissue replaces normal liver tissue) has set in, the damage to the liver is irreversible and symptoms are more severe.

People with chronic liver disease often don’t experience any symptoms – a fact that results in people sometimes only presenting with disease once it’s at quite an advanced stage. 

Many of the symptoms – such as fatigue, diarrhoea, nausea, poor appetite, weakness and abdominal pain – are non-specific.

Therefore, people with liver disease might not notice them at first. These symptoms may also be confused with other conditions. 

Fibrosis (initial and reversible scarring of the liver) often has no symptoms to start with. As a result, it’s often not diagnosed until it progresses. If it’s diagnosed early, and treated appropriately, the liver may heal itself and not develop cirrhosis. However, as the liver becomes less and less able to perform its functions, symptoms become more obvious and specific.

Symptoms may include:

  • Jaundice. The whites of the eyes and skin can turn a yellow colour because of an excess of bilirubin in the system. 
  • Pain and swelling of the legs and abdomen, caused by fluid build-up.
  • Enlarged spleen.
  • Itchiness of the skin. 
  • Spiderlike blood vessels on the face and chest.
  • Bleeding from the oesophagus and stomach. 
  • Blood abnormalities – specifically, a decreased number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. 
  • Clotting problems. Bleeding and easy bruising can be the result of these abnormalities.
  • Hormonal abnormalities. Decreased fertility in women and erectile dysfunction in men.
  • Confusion. This is the result of a deterioration of brain function because of a build-up of toxic substances in the blood (a condition called “hepatic encephalopathy”).
  • Severe encephalopathy can cause a marked, reduced level of consciousness with coma. 

Liver failure is a serious condition that requires immediate hospitalisation. Many different conditions can lead to liver failure, which can develop either gradually or rapidly. A large portion of the liver must be damaged before liver failure occurs.

As the symptoms of liver problems are either absent in the early stages, or similar to the symptoms of many other conditions, liver disease and liver cancer are often only diagnosed in their advanced stages. It’s important to watch for warning signs that your liver may be in trouble.

Read more:
Causes of liver disease

Reviewed by Dr Mark Sonderup, B Pharm, MB ChB, FCP (SA). Senior Specialist, Division of Hepatology, Department of Medicine, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital. March 2018.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Zama zama crackdown: What are your thoughts on West Village residents taking the law into their own hands?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Authorities should bring in the army already
10% - 1614 votes
Illegal miners can't be scapegoated for all crime
53% - 8584 votes
What else did we expect without no proper policing
34% - 5464 votes
Vigilante groups are also part of the problem
3% - 522 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.