Nausea, abdominal discomfort, and yellowing of the skin may be signals that there’s more going on with your liver. We all might experience indigestion or a general feeling of discomfort, but these are not typically early symptoms of liver damage.
So, what signs should you be keeping an eye out for instead?
Family doctor Natalia Hapych, MD, details the symptoms you should watch out for and when it’s time to visit a medical professional.
On This Page
What is liver damage?
Liver damage involves harm to your liver, an organ crucial for digestion, detoxification, and metabolic processes. Located in the upper right part of your abdomen, your liver plays a vital role in managing nutrients, medicines, and toxins.
Over the years, there has been an increase in liver damage cases. In fact, according to the American Liver Foundation, liver disease affects about 1 in 10 Americans. Factors such as alcohol abuse, obesity, and viral infections are prominent contributors.
Chronic liver damage can lead to severe conditions like cirrhosis, liver cancer, or liver failure if not detected and treated early.
“Now that we’re identifying high-risk behaviors and conditions early, patients are educated about lifestyle modifications and preventive measures, and we hope this will help to decrease overall liver damage cases,” Dr. Hapych explains.
However, she cautions that a condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is on the rise, linked to increasing obesity rates.
“There’s an obesity crisis,” says Dr. Hapych. “This leads to fat accumulation in the liver, which causes inflammation and, eventually, can result in severe liver damage.”
Early warning signs
Liver damage is often a stealthy condition. Initial symptoms are typically so mild that they are easily overlooked or confused with other minor health issues.
But there are early warning signs you can watch for:
The yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes are caused by an accumulation of a substance called bilirubin. This is a waste material in the blood.
“When the liver is damaged, it cannot process bilirubin properly, causing an accumulation that leads to jaundice,” Dr. Hapych notes.
Liver damage can cause your skin to be persistently itchy due to the buildup of bile products in your bloodstream.
“This itch can be all over the body and is often worse at night,” adds Dr. Hapych.
Fatigue and Weakness
You might feel unusually tired or weak. This is one of the most common symptoms of liver damage.
“It might be a general feeling of not being well or just lethargy,” says Dr. Hapych.
You might feel discomfort or pain in the upper right area of your abdomen – where your liver is located.
“This could be due to inflammation or enlargement of the liver,” explains Dr. Hapych.
Nausea and Vomiting
Frequent nausea and vomiting can be a sign of liver problems, especially if it persists or is accompanied by other symptoms.
“When the liver isn’t functioning properly, this can impact digestion and cause feelings of nausea,” states Dr. Hapych.
Loss of Appetite
Liver damage can cause a decrease in appetite, leading to unintentional weight loss.
“People might not feel hungry and start losing weight without trying. That’s a concerning symptom,” mentions Dr. Hapych.
The color of your urine can be a good indicator of your liver health. Liver problems can lead to dark-colored urine.
“When the liver isn’t working properly, excess bilirubin can enter the urine, making it darker,” elaborates Dr. Hapych.
Pale or Bloody Stool
Changes in the color of your stool can also indicate a liver issue.
“Your stool may become pale, bloody, or tar-like. This change is concerning and should prompt medical attention,” warns Dr. Hapych.
When to call your doctor
Persistent symptoms should never be ignored.
“If you notice these signs, especially in combination, it’s important to seek medical attention promptly,” advises Dr. Hapych.
Your doctor will take a comprehensive history, perform a physical examination, and may order laboratory tests or imaging studies to evaluate your liver health.
If additional testing is needed, several options are available:
- Blood tests. To assess liver function and look for signs of liver damage or disease.
- Imaging tests. Such as ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI to visualize the liver.
- Liver biopsy. If other tests are inconclusive, your doctor may decide to take a small sample of liver tissue to examine under a microscope.
Treatment options for liver damage vary based on the cause and extent of the damage. They can range from lifestyle modifications and medication to even liver transplants in extreme cases.
Can you reduce your risk?
The most effective way to reduce your risk of liver damage is to take care of your liver health.
“A diet rich in vegetables, healthy proteins, and fruits, and low in processed and fatty foods can help maintain a healthy weight and liver,” advises Dr. Hapych. “Additionally, regular exercise, avoiding excessive alcohol, and getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and B can also protect your liver.”
Remember, while these symptoms could be signs of liver damage, they can also be associated with other health issues.
“Most of the time, these symptoms are due to less severe issues — they might have benign causes,” reassures Dr. Hapych. “Still, if these symptoms persist, it’s best to seek medical advice.”
Further Reading: Early Signs and Symptoms of Liver Disease to Take Seriously