What is the liver?

The human liver is an organ and gland in the human body. It’s spongy, wedge-shaped, reddish-brown in color and about the size of a football. The size varies based on how tall you are and how much you weight.

The liver is an essential organ, performing hundreds of functions necessary to sustain life. It's also a gland because it makes proteins and hormones that other parts of the body need.

Weighing, on average, about three pounds in an adult, the liver is the largest internal organ. Under normal conditions, the liver is located on the right side of the body, under the ribs. In a condition called situs inversus, the liver is located on the left side.

Issues related to the liver are called hepatic conditions. A medical professional who specializes in the liver is a hepatologist.

What does the liver do?

The liver has hundreds of jobs. Some of the most vital are:

  • Cleans toxins (harmful substances) out of the blood.
  • Gets rid of old red blood cells.
  • Makes bile, a fluid that helps the body digest (break down) food.
  • Metabolizes proteins, carbohydrates and fats so your body can use them.
  • Produces substances to help blood clot.
  • Regulates the amount of blood in the body.
  • Stores glycogen (an energy source) and vitamins to be used by the body later.

What are the parts of the liver?

The liver has two main parts: the larger right lobe and the smaller left lobe.

The lobes contain many blood vessels. Blood travels through the liver. The liver filters (cleans) the blood, removing toxins and waste that eventually leave the body through urine and feces.

The lobes also contain thousands of lobules (small lobes). These lobules connect with many bile ducts, tubes that transport bile from the liver to the small intestine.

What conditions and disorders affect the liver?

Many conditions can affect the liver. Among the most common are:

Many of these conditions can lead to cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver.

Sometimes, damaged liver tissue can regenerate, or grow back. Other times, liver disease can cause serious symptoms and even be life-threatening.

What are the symptoms of liver problems?

When a person has a liver problem, one of the most common symptoms is jaundice.

With jaundice, the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow because of too much bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow waste product the liver gets rid of when it breaks down red blood cells. Higher levels of bilirubin indicate a possible problem in the liver.

Other symptoms of liver problems may include:

  • Build-up of fluid in the belly area (ascites).
  • Easy bruising.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Pain in the abdomen.
  • Swelling in the legs or ankles.
  • Tremors (shaking).
  • Weakness, loss of balance or constant fatigue.
  • Confusion or loss of orientation

How can I keep my liver healthy?

To keep your liver healthy and functioning well, try to follow these tips:

  • Avoid toxins, such as chemicals, smoking and illegal drugs.
  • Don’t share needles, razors, toothbrushes or any other personal items, which can spread viruses.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Follow healthcare professionals’ instructions about medications, especially warnings against mixing medications and alcohol.
  • Maintain a healthy weight, including eating a nutritious diet and exercising regularly.
  • Practice safe sex to avoid hepatitis infection.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about vaccinations against hepatitis.
  • Wash your hands frequently.

When should I seek medical attention?

If you have any symptoms of liver problems, especially jaundice or belly pain, talk to a healthcare provider. Anytime you have severe pain in your abdomen, get immediate medical care.

How do I know if I’m at risk for liver problems?

You may be at risk for liver problems if you:

  • Are exposed to chemicals regularly.
  • Are overweight or obese.
  • Drink a lot of alcohol.
  • Have relatives who’ve had liver disease.
  • Practice poor personal hygiene, such as having unprotected sex, sharing personal items and not washing your hands often.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

The liver is both an organ and a gland that performs hundreds of functions vital to human life. Many common conditions and diseases can damage the liver, but you can take steps to protect it. Talk to a healthcare professional if you have any symptoms, especially jaundice or pain in your belly.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/22/2021.

References

  • American Liver Foundation. 13 Ways to a Healthy Liver. (https://liverfoundation.org/13-ways-to-a-healthy-liver/) Accessed 3/2/2021.
  • Britannica. Liver. (https://www.britannica.com/science/liver) Accessed 3/2/2021.
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. Liver Diseases. (https://medlineplus.gov/liverdiseases.html) Accessed 3/2/2021.
  • Trefts E, Gannon M, Wasserman DH. The liver. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5897118/) Curr Biol. 2017;27(21):R1147-R1151. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2017.09.019

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