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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, producing proteins that help with blood clotting and many other functions, 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 accumulation 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 inflammation of the liver caused by viruses, medications, an unregulated immune system or other factors. There are multiple types of viral hepatitis, including hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, cytomegatolovirus, herpes virus, and Epstein-Barr virus (mononucleosis). Hepatitis B and C have the greatest potential for long-term liver damage. Vaccinations prevent hepatitis A and B, but not there is not a vaccine for hepatitis C. Hepatitis A is acquired from contaminated food or water. Hepatitis B is usually acquired by sexual contact, from mother to child at childbirth, or intravenous drug use. 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.

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 or blood product transfusions before 1992. Fortunately, very effective and well-tolerated therapy is now available as a result of clinical trials over the past two decades. Patients at SLU and the SLU Liver Center played a major role in developing these new treatments. 

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 complications develop, and the diagnosis is easily suspected by measuring iron levels in the blood. A genetic test is also available, thanks to Dr. Bacon and the patients of the SLU Liver Center who led to this discovery.

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