The liver performs many important functions, including:
Liver failure occurs when your liver isn’t working well enough to perform these tasks. Liver failure can be a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate medical attention.
In the U.S., approximately 30 million people have some form of liver disease. More than 8,000 people in the U.S. received liver transplants in 2017, and more than 17,000 people are on the waiting list for a liver transplant.
In many cases, chronic liver failure results from cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is the scarring of the liver from repeated or long-lasting injury, such as from drinking alcohol excessively over a long period of time or chronic hepatitis infection. As scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue, the liver loses its ability to function.
Acute liver failure is most often caused by:
Liver failure can take years to develop. The symptoms of liver failure often look like symptoms of other medical conditions, which can make it hard to diagnose in its early stages. Symptoms get worse as your failing liver continues to get weaker.
Chronic liver failure, or liver failure that occurs over many years, may cause:
As liver failure advances, symptoms become more severe. In later stages, symptoms of liver failure may include:
Sometimes, the liver fails suddenly, which is known as acute liver failure. People with acute liver failure may have the following symptoms:
The doctor diagnoses liver failure based on your symptoms, your medical history and the results of tests (blood tests, urine tests, abdominal imaging).
Liver disease and liver failure are usually treated by specialists called hepatologists.
Treatment of liver failure depends on whether it is acute or chronic. For chronic liver failure, treatment includes changes to the diet and lifestyle, including:
For acute (sudden) liver failure, treatment includes:
You may also receive a blood transfusion if you are bleeding excessively, or a breathing tube to help you breathe.
In both acute and chronic liver failure, the doctor may recommend a liver transplant. Before transplantation, doctors thoroughly screen transplant candidates to make sure a new organ might help them before placing them on organ waiting lists.
During the transplantation surgery, a healthy liver from a living or deceased donor replaces a damaged or diseased liver. Some transplant centers are able to replace a damaged liver with a portion of a healthy liver because the liver can regenerate, or grow back.
Liver failure can affect many of your body’s organs. Acute liver failure can cause such complications as infection, electrolyte deficiencies and bleeding. Without treatment, both acute and chronic liver failure may eventually result in death.
You can reduce your chances of developing liver failure by:
People most at risk for liver failure include those who:
Many people recover from liver failure with treatment. If a transplant is necessary, most patients go back to their daily activities within 6 months. People who have received a transplant need lifelong medical care, including medications to prevent their body from rejecting the new organ.
Contact your doctor or go to the emergency department immediately if you develop any symptoms of liver failure.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 07/06/2018