Liver problems include a wide range of diseases and conditions that can affect your liver. Your liver is an organ about the size of a football that sits just under your rib cage on the right side of your abdomen. Without your liver, you couldn't digest food and absorb nutrients, get rid of toxic substances from your body or stay alive.

Liver problems can be inherited, or liver problems can occur in response to viruses and chemicals. Some liver problems are temporary and go away on their own, while other liver problems can last for a long time and lead to serious complications.

Signs and symptoms of liver problems include:

  • Discolored skin and eyes that appear yellowish
  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Itchy skin that doesn't seem to go away
  • Dark urine color
  • Pale stool color
  • Bloody or tar-colored stool
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any persistent signs or symptoms that worry you. Seek immediate medical attention if you have abdominal pain that is so severe that you can't stay still.

Problems that can occur in the liver include:

  • Acute liver failure
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency
  • Autoimmune hepatitis
  • Bile duct obstruction
  • Chronic liver failure
  • Cirrhosis
  • Enlarged liver
  • Gilbert's syndrome
  • Hemochromatosis
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C
  • Hepatitis D
  • Hepatitis E
  • Liver adenoma
  • Liver cancer
  • Liver cyst
  • Liver hemangioma
  • Liver nodule (focal nodular hyperplasia)
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Parasitic infection
  • Portal vein thrombosis
  • Primary biliary cirrhosis
  • Toxic hepatitis
  • Wilson's disease

Factors that may increase your risk of liver problems include:

  • A job that exposes you to other people's blood and body fluids
  • Blood transfusion before 1992
  • Body piercings
  • Certain herbs and supplements
  • Certain prescription medications
  • Diabetes
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • High levels of triglycerides in your blood
  • Injecting drugs using shared needles
  • Obesity
  • Tattoos
  • Unprotected sex
  • Working with chemicals or toxins without following safety precautions

If you suspect you have a liver problem, start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. If it's determined that you may have liver problems, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in the liver (hepatologist).

Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

  • Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
  • Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
  • Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
  • Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
  • Consider taking a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to absorb all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.

Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For liver problems, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What is likely causing my liver problems?
  • What kinds of tests do I need?
  • Are my liver problems temporary or chronic?
  • Can my liver problems be treated?
  • Are there treatments to relieve my signs and symptoms?
  • Should I stop taking certain medications or supplements?
  • Should I avoid alcohol?
  • Should I see a specialist? What will that cost, and will my insurance cover it?
  • Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?

In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions at any time during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow more time later to cover other points you want to address. Your doctor may ask:

  • When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
  • Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?

Tests and procedures used to diagnose liver problems include:

  • Blood tests. A group of blood tests called liver function tests can be used to diagnose liver problems. Other blood tests can be done to look for specific liver problems or inherited conditions that affect the liver.
  • Imaging tests. Procedures that create pictures of your liver, such as computerized tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound, can reveal liver problems.
  • Tests of liver tissue. A procedure to remove tissue from your liver (liver biopsy) may help in diagnosing liver problems. Liver biopsy is most often done using a long needle inserted through the skin to extract a tissue sample (needle biopsy). The tissue sample is sent to a laboratory where it can be examined under a microscope.

Treatment for liver problems depends on your diagnosis. Some liver problems can be treated with medications. Others may require surgery.

Liver transplant may ultimately be required for liver problems that cause liver failure.

Some herbal supplements used as alternative medicine treatments can be harmful to your liver. To protect your liver, talk with your doctor about the potential risks before you take:

  • Black cohosh
  • Certain Chinese herbs, including ma-huang
  • Chaparral
  • Comfrey
  • Germander
  • Greater celandine
  • Kava
  • Mistletoe
  • Pennyroyal
  • Skullcap
  • Valerian

Prevent liver problems by protecting your liver. For example:

  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink to no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men.
  • Avoid risky behavior. Get help if you use illicit intravenous drugs. Don't share needles used to inject drugs. If you choose to have sex, use condoms. If you choose to have tattoos or body piercings, be picky about cleanliness and safety when it comes to selecting a shop.
  • Get vaccinated. If you're at increased risk of contracting hepatitis or if you've already been infected with any form of the hepatitis virus, talk to your doctor about getting the hepatitis B vaccine. A vaccine is also available for hepatitis A.
  • Use medications wisely. Only use prescription and nonprescription drugs when you need them and take only the recommended doses. Don't mix medications and alcohol. Talk to your doctor before mixing herbal supplements or prescription or nonprescription drugs.
  • Avoid contact with other people's blood and body fluids. Hepatitis viruses can be spread by accidental needle sticks or improper cleanup of blood or body fluids. It's also possible to become infected by sharing razor blades or toothbrushes.
  • Take care with aerosol sprays. When you use an aerosol cleaner, make sure the room is ventilated, or wear a mask. Take similar protective measures when spraying insecticides, fungicides, paint and other toxic chemicals. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Watch what gets on your skin. When using insecticides and other toxic chemicals, cover your skin with gloves, long sleeves, a hat and a mask.
  • Choose a healthy diet. Choose a plant-based diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Limit high-fat foods.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity can cause a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which may include fatty liver, hepatitis and cirrhosis.
  • Experience. Mayo Clinic has a worldwide reputation for expertise in diagnosing and treating liver disease. Each year, Mayo Clinic liver specialists (hepatologists) treat thousands of people for liver disease and perform more than 500 liver transplants.
  • Team approach. At Mayo, you will have access to doctors from hepatology, radiology, pathology, genetics, surgery and other areas, all with special training and experience in liver diseases, and all working together to solve your problem.
  • Continuous improvement. Mayo Clinic doctors have made important advances in treating liver disease, and their continuing research helps ensure that you receive the latest in liver disease treatment.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., ranks No. 1 for digestive disorders in the U.S. News & World Report Best Hospitals rankings. Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., are ranked high performing for digestive disorders by U.S. News & World Report.

Mayo Clinic works with hundreds of insurance companies and is an in-network provider for millions of people. In most cases, Mayo Clinic doesn't require a physician referral. Some insurers require referrals or may have additional requirements for certain medical care. All appointments are prioritized on the basis of medical need.

Mayo specialists in Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Transplantation and Laboratory Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Arizona work together to care for adults who have liver disease. The Hepatobiliary Clinic helps coordinate care of patients with liver diseases.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 800-446-2279 (toll-free) 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

Mayo specialists in Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Transplant Services and Laboratory Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Florida work together to care for adults who have liver disease.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 904-953-0853 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

Mayo specialists in Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Medical Genetics, Transplant Center and Laboratory Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota work together to care for adults and children who have liver disease.

The Hepatobiliary Clinic at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota helps facilitate a patient-centered, team approach to the treatment of liver disease. The Hyperoxaluria Center specializes in researching and treating primary oxalosis.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 507-538-3270 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

See information on patient services at the three Mayo Clinic locations, including transportation options and lodging.

Mayo Clinic has a long history of important contributions to advances in the diagnosis and treatment of liver disease. In fact, Mayo Clinic scientists and physicians publish more than 200 original gastroenterology and hepatology-related research articles every year.

Mayo Clinic researchers have pioneered new treatments of many liver diseases, as well as a new generation of endoscopes to perform incision-free, minimally invasive procedures for liver disease and other conditions.

Examples of Mayo's contributions, past and present, to liver disease diagnosis and treatment include:

  • Mayo researchers are testing hepatocyte transplantation, which involves the transfer of normal liver cells into a diseased liver.
  • Mayo researchers are studying exciting new treatments such as gene therapy, in which physicians treat a disorder by inserting a missing gene into a patient's cells instead of using drugs or surgery.
  • Mayo Clinic researchers are studying new treatments for primary oxalosis, a genetic liver disease, at the Hyperoxaluria Center in Minnesota.
  • Mayo participates in research on hereditary hemochromatosis, and collects blood and tissue samples from patients for a patient registry for genetic research.
  • Mayo Clinic doctors published the first clinical description of alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic liver disease.
Apr. 16, 2011