The liver is a vital organ that plays a key role in many of the body’s essential functions, including metabolism, detoxification, and digestion.
Liver disease is a condition that affects the structure and function of the liver. There are many different types, ranging from those that are benign and cause no symptoms to those that can be fatal.
Liver disease often progresses slowly and doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages. However, there are some warning signs to look for that can indicate if you’re at risk.
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Early Warning Signs of Liver Disease
Here are the top 10 early warning signs of liver disease that you should be aware of:
- Dark-Colored Urine
- Loss of Appetite
- Unexplained Weight Loss
- Swollen Legs
- Abdominal Pain
- Breast Enlargement in Men
Keep reading to learn more about each of these warning signs, as well as other red flags that could indicate a problem with your liver.
Jaundice is the most common sign of liver disease and is characterized by a yellowish discoloration of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes.
This occurs when red blood cells finish their life cycle and secrete a waste product known as bilirubin. If the liver isn’t able to filter out this waste product, it can build up and cause the skin to take on a yellowish hue.
In the case of liver disease, jaundice may be an indication that the condition has progressed to an advanced stage. Therefore, please seek medical attention as soon as possible if you notice any discoloration of your skin and eyes.
2. Dark-Colored Urine
Healthy urine should be clear or have a pale yellow color. However, if you notice that your urine has turned dark or reddish in color, this could be an indication of liver problems.
Dark urine is typically caused by the presence of bilirubin, which means that your liver may not be functioning correctly and isn’t able to process and expel waste products as it should.
This often indicates that bile production has been impaired, which is a condition known as cholestasis.
Cholestasis is a common symptom of liver disease and should be treated as soon as possible by a qualified medical professional.
Fatigue is a common symptom of many conditions, but it may also be an early warning sign of liver disease, especially if it is accompanied by other symptoms.
This occurs because the liver is responsible for filtering out toxins and other waste products. So when it isn’t functioning correctly, the body can become overwhelmed.
Fatigue can result in feelings of exhaustion, a decrease in energy levels, and reduced alertness. Unfortunately, this can impact your ability to perform daily tasks and can greatly reduce your quality of life.
Again, it’s important to note that fatigue alone can be caused by many different conditions, but if it’s accompanied by other signs of liver disease, it’s important to seek medical assistance.
4. Loss of Appetite
A healthy appetite is important for maintaining your overall health. If you notice that you’re losing interest in food and are unable to eat as much as you normally would, this could be a sign of liver disease.
When the liver isn’t functioning properly, it can cause a decrease in appetite and a reduced ability to absorb nutrients from food. This can lead to not only weight loss but also nutrient deficiencies, which can further damage your overall health.
5. Unexplained Weight Loss
Weight loss attributed to liver disease is often a direct result of a loss of appetite.
I mean, it makes sense, right?
If you’re not hungry as often and aren’t taking in enough calories, then you’re likely to lose weight.
In addition to appetite loss, the liver plays a role in metabolizing fats and carbohydrates. When the liver is not functioning optimally, it can cause the body to burn fewer calories and lead to weight loss over time.
While the connection between liver disease and unexplained weight loss is unclear, research points to extreme oxidative stress that results from abnormal fat metabolism.
In other words, the liver becomes compromised and unable to break down fat for fuel.
Nausea is a common symptom of many illnesses and diseases, including liver disease.
This occurs because the bile produced by a healthy liver helps to break down food so it can be digested more easily. However, when the liver isn’t functioning optimally, it can’t produce enough bile, and this can cause nausea.
Furthermore, people who suffer from liver disease also often experience Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). This occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus and can cause nausea, vomiting, and other digestive issues.
If the liver is unable to filter out toxins and waste products from the bloodstream, these toxins can build up and make you feel sick to your stomach.
Nausea can also be a side effect of some medications used to treat liver disease, such as antivirals and antibiotics.
Weakness is a common symptom of liver diseases because neuromuscular dysfunction associated with changes in metabolism is a common consequence of a malfunctioning liver.
As a result, the central nervous system (CNS) is affected, which can lead to muscle weakness and fatigue.
In other words, if the CNS is unable to receive a normal level of nutrients from the bloodstream due to the liver’s inability to filter out toxins, this can result in a feeling of overall weakness.
Furthermore, the liver plays a major role in energy metabolism, as it regulates fat metabolism throughout the body. If the liver can’t break down fat into glycerol and fatty acids, the body can’t use fat stores for energy, which results in feelings of weakness and fatigue.
8. Swollen Legs
When the liver isn’t functioning properly, it can cause fluid buildup in the lower extremities, causing swelling in the feet, ankles, and legs.
It can also cause swelling in the abdomen due to a condition called ascites. This is caused by a buildup of fluid in the abdomen due to poor liver function.
The accumulation of fluid can also make it difficult for your body to filter out toxins and waste products, which can lead to further complications.
In extreme cases, liver disease can cause a sudden accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, called hydrothorax. This can cause abdominal pain and breathing problems.
This type of edema is a common symptom of a wide range of diseases mainly relating to problems with the circulatory system. However, when combined with the other symptoms on this list, it can definitely be an indication that liver disease is present.
Compression stockings can help as a temporary solution, but you should still seek medical advice as soon as possible.
9. Abdominal Pain
If you’ve experienced a dull, constant pain in the abdominal region that doesn’t go away, it could be a sign of liver disease. This is especially true if the pain is located on the upper right side of the abdomen where the liver is located.
The pain can be attributed to the fact that when liver disease is present, it becomes inflamed, triggering a dull ache in the problematic area.
However, it’s important to note that abdominal pain isn’t a clear indication of liver disease on its own. But if it’s accompanied by the other symptoms on this list, it warrants a visit to the doctor for further evaluation.
10. Breast Enlargement in Men
Breast enlargement in men is a condition known as gynecomastia. It’s an indication of hormonal changes within the body, which can occur as a result of fatty liver disease.
When the liver is not functioning properly, it causes hormonal changes and high estrogen production. Unfortunately, high estrogen levels in the bloodstream can naturally result in breast enlargement in men.
Furthermore, water retention and weight gain can also cause the breasts to swell in men. This is a sign that something is wrong and should be addressed as soon as possible.
Liver disease is a serious medical condition and can be life-threatening if not treated in time. This is why it’s important to pay attention to the early warning signs so that you can seek medical attention as soon as possible.
While some may be common and not necessarily indicative of disease, if you notice any of these symptoms, it’s best to consult with your doctor for a proper diagnosis.
Early detection is key in the treatment of liver disease so take the necessary precautions to ensure your health and well-being.
John Landry, BS, RRT
John Landry, a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He's passionate about using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.