What is liver failure?

Liver failure is a life-threatening condition in which there is a severe deterioration of liver function. The liver is a vital organ located in the right upper area of your abdomen under the ribs. Liver failure is caused by liver damage, which makes it difficult or impossible for the liver to function normally in processes that are critical to life and your overall health including:

  • Blood clotting

  • Clearing the blood of toxins

  • Fighting infection

  • Making bile that assists with digestion

  • Metabolizing medications and other substances

  • Producing proteins, enzymes, and healthy blood

  • Removing waste

  • Storing vitamins, minerals and energy

There are two general types of liver failure:

  • Acute liver failure is a failure of liver function that occurs suddenly due to such conditions as an overdose of acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ingestion of toxic substances. 

  • Chronic liver failure is a deterioration of liver function that occurs over a long period of time, generally months to years. Chronic liver failure is the most common form of liver failure and is generally due to long-term liver diseases, such as cirrhosis of the liver and hemochromatosis.

Symptoms of early liver failure can be vague and similar to many other less serious diseases, such as chronic fatigue syndrome or viral gastroenteritis. A hallmark symptom of advancing liver failure is jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes.

In some cases of acute liver failure, rapid diagnosis and treatment may reverse the condition. However, once permanent liver damage has occurred due to either acute or chronic liver damage, it cannot be reversed or cured. Patient compliance with a good treatment plan may be able to slow or stop progression of liver damage and minimize complications.

Liver failure is a life-threatening condition that is often fatal because it drastically affects the liver’s ability to function normally. Seek prompt medical care if you have a history of chronic disease, such as hepatitis, congestive heart failure, or cirrhosis of the liver, and unexplained symptoms, such as nausea, fatigue, diarrhea or weakness. In addition, if you have any form of liver disease or liver failure, do not take any supplements, over-the-counter medications or prescription drugs without consulting your health care provider. This is because the liver may not be able to clear the drugs from the body, resulting in dangerous, toxic levels of chemicals or and other harmful substances in the body.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of acute or advanced chronic liver failure, such as shakiness, jaundice, confusion, shortness of breath, abdominal swelling, or a change in consciousness or alertness. You should also seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have overdosed on a drug or ingested a toxic substance.


What are the symptoms of liver failure?

Early symptoms of liver failure are often not specific and may be confused with symptoms of many other conditions, such as indigestion, viral gastroenteritis, or chronic fatigue syndrome. Early symptoms may include:


What causes liver failure?

Liver failure is due to underlying liver diseases that often cause progressive damage to the liver. Liver disease generally begins with inflammation and enlargement of the liver, which may be reversed with medical treatment in some cases. Left untreated, liver inflammation leads to fibrosis (scarring) of the liver tissue that progresses and ultimately replaces healthy liver tissue. Scarred live... Read more about liver failurecauses


How is liver failure treated?

Scar tissue formed in the liver due to advanced liver disease, which causes liver failure, is permanent. The goal of treatment is to stop or slow the progression of damage to the liver and minimize and quickly treat any other complications and coexisting conditions, such as portal hypertension and hemorrhage. Treatment plans include a multifaceted and individualized approach that varies dependi... Read more about liver failuretreatments

Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Aug 5, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Digestive System

Did You Know?

View Source

Half of those with IBS have symptoms before what age?