What are liver cysts?
Liver cysts are fluid-filled sacs that appear on your liver. Nearly all liver cysts are benign (noncancerous). Few cysts grow large enough to cause symptoms. Some liver cysts are caused by an inherited disorder that may require treatment, though.
Are benign liver cysts common?
Benign liver cysts, sometimes called simple cysts, are the most common form of liver cyst. Healthcare providers estimate that 15% to 18% of people in the United States and 5% to 10% of people worldwide have liver cysts.
Who’s affected by liver cysts?
Overall, liver cysts may affect people between ages 30 to 70, but only 10 % to 15% of people develop obvious symptoms. More females than males are born with liver cysts and more males than females develop liver cysts.
Are liver cysts usually cancerous?
Liver cysts rarely become precancerous or turn into cancerous cysts. Healthcare providers use surgery to treat liver cysts that cause symptoms or are cancerous. About 1% to 5% of all liver cysts are precancerous and about 30% of those cysts become cancerous. Healthcare providers treat cancerous liver cysts with surgery.
Are cysts in liver dangerous?
While nearly all liver cysts are benign (noncancerous) and don’t grow large enough to cause symptoms, a very small percentage of liver cysts can become cancerous. However, two types of cystic liver disease may require surgery or other treatment:
- Hydatid disease (Echinoccal or hydatid cysts): Hydatid disease is caused by parasites that pass to humans from dogs and sheep, usually through water systems. The parasites develop into cysts on people’s livers and other areas of their bodies. Left untreated, hydatid disease can cause fever, jaundice or eosinophilia, or an unusually high number of white blood cells. Healthcare providers treat these cysts with medication, including chemotherapy, to kill the parasite, and surgery to remove the cysts.
- Polycystic liver disease (PLD): This rare inherited disorder affects about 1 to 10 people in 100,000. People with PLD develop clusters of benign or simple cysts on their livers. These cysts may look like clusters of very large grapes. Only about 20% of people with PLD have noticeable symptoms, and most people don’t have symptoms until they’re adults. Over time, people’s livers get larger, causing swollen or distended bellies and discomfort. Healthcare providers treat PLD with medication and surgery.
Do liver cysts go away on their own?
Some medical studies show benign liver cysts going away without treatment. It’s important to remember that most liver cysts are benign and don’t grow large enough to cause symptoms. Healthcare providers may perform surgery to remove large cysts.
How large are most liver cysts?
Liver cysts can be as tiny as a pinhead or measure 4 inches across.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes liver cysts?
Nearly all liver cysts are congenital, meaning they’re present at birth. Healthcare providers aren’t sure what causes congenital liver cysts.
What are liver cyst symptoms?
Most people who have benign or cancerous liver cysts never have symptoms. Those who do may have the following symptoms:
- Dull pain in the upper right area of their bellies.
- Bloated or distended bellies.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Lack of appetite or feeling full after eating very little food.
- Feeling short of breath.
- Being able to feel large lumps in their belly.
- Jaundice. This may happen if liver cysts block your bile ducts.
- Fever and acute belly pain. This may happen if a cyst ruptures.
Diagnosis and Tests
How do healthcare providers diagnose liver cysts?
Many times, healthcare providers discover liver cysts while performing imaging tests for other conditions. Imaging tests that reveal liver cysts include:
- Ultrasound. Ultrasounds use high-frequency soundwaves to create real-time pictures and videos of your internal organs or other tissues.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan. CT scans use a series of X-rays and a computer to create three-dimensional images of your soft tissues and bones.
- Magnetic resonance imaging. (MRI). This painless test uses a large magnet, radio waves and a computer to produce very clear images of organs and structures within your body.
If healthcare providers spot liver cysts during imaging tests, they may do the following to diagnose or rule out conditions such as precancerous or cancerous liver cysts, polycystic liver disease or liver cysts caused by parasites:
- Physical examination.
- Medical history. Healthcare providers may ask if you have a history of chronic liver disease, as well as questions about your family medical history and travel history.
- Serodiagnostic tests. These tests are used to identify specific antibodies in blood samples.
- Contrast-enhanced ultrasound. Contrast-enhanced ultrasound (high-frequency sound waves are sent through body tissues and the echoes are recorded and transformed into video or photos).
Management and Treatment
How do you treat a liver cyst?
Most benign or simple liver cysts don’t need to be treated. But healthcare providers may remove benign or simple liver cysts that grow larger than 4 centimeters across.
Procedures and surgeries to remove large benign cysts, cysts caused by polycystic liver disease and precancerous or cancerous liver cysts include:
- Percutaneous aspiration. Healthcare providers use ultrasound or CT imaging to insert needles or catheters into liver cysts and drain the cysts’ fluid.
- Cyst fenestration. This surgery treats large cysts by removing the cyst’s wall.
- Hepatic resection. This surgery removes areas of the liver affected by cysts.
- Transarterial embolization (TACE). This treatment works the same way you might build a dam in a stream to stop the stream from flowing. Healthcare providers inject anti-cancer drugs into one of your arteries that supplies blood to your liver. Then, they inject a substance to block the artery. The substances act as a dam, keeping the anti-cancer drug swirling around the tumor instead of floating away.
- Surgery. To remove benign or cancerous cysts.
- Liver transplantation. This surgery treats polycystic liver disease that doesn’t respond to medication and/or surgeries to remove liver cysts.
Can I prevent liver cysts?
Most liver cysts are congenital, meaning they’re present at birth.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have a liver cyst?
Your prognosis, or expected outcome, depends on the type of cyst you have:
- Some benign (noncancerous) liver cysts never cause symptoms. If that’s your situation, your healthcare provider may recommend you have follow-up imaging tests, such as ultrasounds, every three months for a year to confirm your cysts aren’t growing or changing.
- Some people have surgery to remove large benign liver cysts or cancerous liver cysts. Studies show liver cysts removed with surgery rarely come back. Your healthcare provider may schedule follow-up tests based on your situation.
How do I take care of myself if I’m diagnosed with a liver cyst?
Some people need surgery or other treatment for their liver cysts. If that’s your situation, ask your healthcare provider for information on managing treatment side effects.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
Many times, liver cysts grow undetected until they show up during routine imaging tests. Some questions to ask your healthcare provider that may help you understand next steps in dealing with this unexpected diagnosis include:
- How do I know whether my cyst is benign or cancerous?
- What kind of tests will I need?
- Will I need to have a liver biopsy performed?
- Can you remove a cyst if it’s making me uncomfortable or causing pain?
- Will you monitor my cyst over time to check on its size and location over time?
- If I have liver cysts, should I get other kinds of testing to check for cysts anywhere else in my body?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Most people first learn they have liver cysts during tests for other reasons. While no one likes hearing about an unexpected health issue, it may help to know that nearly all liver cysts are benign and rarely cause symptoms that could affect your quality of life. Often, healthcare providers choose to monitor cysts rather than do surgery to remove them. If you’re concerned about liver cysts, ask your healthcare provider for information about your situation so you know what to expect.
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