Liver Disease Facts

The liver is the largest organ in the body. Consisting of several lobes, the liver is found under the ribs on the right side of the body and is important in removing harmful material from the blood, making enzymes and bile that help digest food, and converting food into substances needed for life and growth.

The liver is the only organ in the body that is able to regenerate or completely repair damage with new cells. However, long-term complications can occur when regeneration is either incomplete or is prevented by progressive development of scar tissue. Once scar tissue has developed, it is very difficult to reverse the process. Severe scarring is known as cirrhosis and indicates late-stage liver disease that is often followed by complications.

Approximately one in 10 Americans is affected by liver and biliary disease. Up to 50 percent of these people have no symptoms. The most common symptoms of liver disease are vague, including fatigue or excessive tiredness, lethargy and occasionally itching. More prominent signs of liver disease include jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes and skin, dark urine, very pale or light colored stool, bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract, mental confusion, and retention of fluids in the abdomen. The first sign of liver disease often is abnormal blood tests.

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by a virus, drugs or other factors. There are six known kinds of viral hepatitis: A, B, C, D, E and G. Hepatitis B and C have the greatest potential for long-term liver damage. There is a vaccine for the prevention of hepatitis A and B, but not for hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C alone is five times as widespread as HIV. More than 4 million people (1.9 percent of the population) have been exposed to hepatitis C and most do not know that they are infected. The virus is spread through infected human blood and blood products. The estimated medical and work loss cost per year from viral hepatitis is greater than $500 million.

There are 1.2 million people in the United States with hepatitis B. One out of every 250 people is a carrier of hepatitis B and can pass it on to others - through contact with blood or body fluids — often unknowingly. Hepatitis B is 100 times more infectious than HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. There are 500 million hepatitis viral particles in one teaspoon of blood compared to 5 to 10 HIV particles.

Hemochromatosis is a genetic disease of iron metabolism that results in excess iron deposits throughout the body. The disease may lead to the development of cirrhosis, diabetes, skin pigment changes, cardiac problems, arthritis and testicular atrophy. Life expectancy is normal if hemochromatosis is diagnosed before these secondary disorders develop.

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