When a liver is working well, it cleans the blood, helps digest food and fights infection. It is also a bit of a bodily superhero — much like Wolverine and Deadpool, it has the power to regenerate when it has been damaged, replacing old tissue with new cells.
“Anything that keeps your liver from doing its job — or from growing back after injury — may put your life in danger,” the American Liver Foundation warns. That can be inflammation, scarring, cancer or even using too much Tylenol. Although the liver lies on the inside of the body, the body shows outward signs when something is wrong.
Your skin and the whites of your eyes could turn yellow when the liver isn’t working properly, due to a buildup in the blood of a yellowish substance called bilirubin, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The U.K.’s National Health Service adds that the yellowing symptom, called jaundice, can occur when the liver’s damage prevents it from processing that bilirubin. Common causes of that kind of liver damage are hepatitis, cancer, drinking too much alcohol, abusing ecstasy, exposure to toxic substances and various infections.
Jaundice also changes the color of urine and stool, making the urine dark and the stool pale, the National Health Service explains.
The Mayo Clinic lists liver disease as an underlying cause of itchy skin, as well as kidney failure, thyroid problems and cancer. “The itching usually affects the whole body. The skin may look otherwise normal except for the repeatedly scratched areas.”
People with liver damage will bruise or bleed more easily because their liver has slowed or stopped production of proteins that are necessary for blood clotting, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases says. The liver actually produces several clotting factors, all of which begin to disappear in people with damage to that organ.
When the liver isn’t able to do its job, people may start to retain water in their abdomens and legs, causing swelling, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In some cases, there just isn’t any indication that something is going wrong. The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics warns that up to half of those with liver disease show no signs. And in the cases that mild symptoms present themselves, the most common ones “are very nonspecific and they include fatigue or excessive tiredness, lack of drive, occasionally itching.”
Once a person progresses beyond those early symptoms, the damage to the liver and the side effects become more serious. The American Liver Foundation explains people may have the blood vessels leading to their livers burst, toxins could build up in their brains and interfere with mental function, and they could experience nausea and diarrhea. “As liver failure progresses, the symptoms become more serious,” the foundation says. “The patient may become confused and disoriented, and extremely sleepy. There is a risk of coma and death.” At that point, a liver transplant may be the only option, so it’s important to try to identify the signs of liver damage early.