Symptoms of Liver Problems
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Different Diseases, Similar Symptoms
There are more than 100 different liver diseases. They have different causes, including:
Too much alcohol
Medications, illegal drugs, or toxins
Even though there are different diseases and different causes, many liver conditions damage the liver in similar ways. Because of this, they can look similar and cause similar symptoms.
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Acute vs. Chronic
Sometimes liver damage or even liver failure and related symptoms will be acute, or come on quickly. This can happen if you take too much acetaminophen or other medicines. Herbal supplements, viruses, and autoimmune conditions also can cause this. But most of the time, liver diseases and liver failure are chronic. This means they happen gradually as the liver is damaged slowly over time. In this case, symptoms can come on more gradually too.
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Early Liver Disease Symptoms
You might not notice early symptoms. If you do, it might be hard to know what’s causing them. That’s because early signs of liver trouble are vague, like:
Not feeling hungry
Tiredness or lack of energy
You may just feel generally sick or unwell and not know why.
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Yellow Skin or Eyes (Jaundice)
As the liver gets more damaged, you may notice clearer signs of a problem. Your skin may look yellow along with the whites of your eyes. Doctors call this jaundice. This happens when too much of a yellow substance from your red blood cells called bilirubin builds up. Normally, your liver would clear the bilirubin out. But a damaged liver can’t keep up, so levels rise.
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If you have lasting liver problems, you may feel itchy. This happens even though you don’t have a rash or anything on your skin. The itchiness can make it hard to do things like sleep. It keeps up even if you scratch. If you have this, ask your doctor if there’s medicine that can help.
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Swollen Belly (Ascites)
If your liver is scarred, it can block blood flow to your liver and raise the pressure in blood vessels around it. This makes fluid seep out and collect in your belly. There may be a little fluid and swelling or a lot. Your belly may get very large and your belly button might push out. Sometimes ascites gets infected and needs antibiotics. If there’s a lot of extra fluid with nowhere to go, you may need to have it drained with a tube.
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Swollen Legs or Ankles
In some people with ascites, legs and ankles also swell as fluid builds up. It might help to eat less salt or take medicine that makes you pee more.
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Pale Poop and Dark Pee
Your liver is the reason that healthy poop looks brown. The brown color comes from bile salts made by your liver. If your liver doesn’t make bile normally or if the flow from the liver is blocked, your poop will look pale like the color of clay. Pale poop often happens along with yellow skin (jaundice). The extra bilirubin that makes your skin look yellow also can make your pee unusually dark.
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Fatigue and Confusion
Many people with liver disease suffer from lingering fatigue. This might happen because of toxins building up since your liver isn’t clearing them like it should. The buildup of toxins in your body and bloodstream also can affect brain function. You might get confused or find it hard to concentrate. You might forget things or notice other changes as liver disease affects your brain.
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Nausea and Vomiting
Your stomach might get upset early on if you have liver disease. As the disease and damage to your liver go on, raised toxin levels can make this worse. Lingering nausea or throwing up often are a sign of liver problems. If your liver is failing, you also may have blood in your vomit or poop.
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Bruising Easily or Bleeding
If your liver is failing, you may notice you get bruises more easily. If you get a cut or nosebleed, it may not stop like it should. While people with advanced liver disease are prone to bleeding, they also are more likely to get blood clots.
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Red Palms and ‘Spider Webs’
You may have red marks from blood vessels under your skin that look like spider webs. Doctors call these spider naevi. They often happen on the cheeks, nose, and neck. One study in people who were alcoholics found that these are a strong indicator of liver problems. People with these spider-like marks also often have reddened palms (palmar erythema). Blotchy red palms are another symptom of advanced liver disease.
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Catching Liver Disease Sooner
It’s possible you could have liver disease without knowing it. Lots of people with liver problems don’t seem sick. As damage to the liver gets worse, symptoms will start. If the damage has gone too far, there might not be any way to fix it. But knowing what to look for could help to catch liver problems early. That way you’ll have a chance to stop more damage and let your liver heal before it’s too late.
Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on May 17, 2021