Originally published: 31.OCT.2019
Last updated: 30.AUG.2023

According to the most recent statistics from the American Liver Foundation, more than 100 million people in the U.S. alone have some form of liver disease, with many not even realizing they have it. Liver problems can be caused by many factors such as viral infection, alcohol use, and obesity.

Left untreated, liver disease can cause a whole host of serious complications which is why it’s important to stay in the know about your liver health. Read below for some of the early signs and indicators of liver dysfunction that you should know plus symptoms that may arise in the later stages of liver disease.

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What is Liver Dysfunction?

The liver plays many important functions in the body, just some of these include

  • Removing harmful substances or toxins from the body
  • Breaking down and absorbing nutrients from food
  • Aiding storage of glucose in the form of glycogen
  • Manufacturing bile to help support digestion

Liver dysfunction occurs when the liver can no longer perform most or some of the above tasks, indicating a decline in liver function. Depending on the cause, this can be sudden or gradual.

There are many conditions associated with liver dysfunction or liver disease, these include

  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Hemochromatosis

Related article: What are the Functions of the Liver?

What are the Symptoms of Liver Dysfunction?

In the early stages of liver dysfunction, the symptoms are not always obvious, however, if they do occur, some of the early symptoms of liver disease may include:

  • Feeling tired all of the time
  • Unexplained loss of appetite
  • Nausea, vomiting, or an upset stomach

As liver dysfunction progresses, symptoms usually become more obvious, these symptoms may include:

  • Yellowing skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Dark coloured urine
  • Change in stool color
  • Tendency to bruise easily
  • Itchy or dry skin
  • Swelling and pain in the legs and abdominal pain

9 Common Symptoms and Signs of Liver Dysfunction

#1 Feeling tired all of the time

Feeling tired all of the time is a trademark that something isn’t quite right with your health.

  • When it comes to liver dysfunction or damage, feeling tired may arise due to the lower volume of oxygen which is also known as hemoglobin - lower levels of oxygen mean there is less fuel for essential bodily functions.
  • In cases of moderate to severe liver damage, those living with it will likely experience exhaustion.
  • Liver damage may also be worsened by the fact that insomnia is a common side effect of liver cirrhosis, also known as liver scarring.

Related article: Why am I so Tired? 6 Common Causes of Fatigue

#2 Unexplained loss of appetite

An unexplained loss of appetite is common in liver damage. It may be caused by nausea and/or persistent vomiting (more on that below).

#3 Nausea, vomiting, or an upset stomach

Nausea and/or vomiting are a common symptom of liver damage.

  • Those living with liver dysfunction that involves an inability to flush toxins from the body effectively may experience an increased incidence of digestive issues.
  • A build-up of waste products in the body may lead to bloating, cramping, diarrhea, and constipation as well as nausea and vomiting.

#4 Yellowing skin or eyes (Jaundice)

Yellow in both the skin and the whites of the eyes is commonly associated with liver damage.

  • A liver that is not functioning properly is unable to get rid of bilirubin - a molecule that is formed from the breakdown of red blood cells in the body. If there is too much bilirubin, it builds up in the blood and is deposited through the skin - causing jaundice.

Jaundice usually occurs in the later stages of liver dysfunction or disease. If you are concerned about yellow skin or eyes, it's important to speak with your healthcare provider.

#5 Dark-colored urine

Dark-colored urine may be caused by the build-up of waste products in the body.

  • If you are living with liver damage, you may have dark-colored urine due to a buildup of bile in the body.
  • This may happen if the liver is damaged to the point where it can no longer carry out a number of functions.

It’s important to know that dark-colored urine does not always mean liver damage, it can also be a tell-tale sign of dehydration.

#6 Change in stool color

Pale, clay, beige, or black/tar colored stool may be a sign of liver damage.

  • A change in the color of stool can indicate that your liver is not producing enough bile, or it may not be draining bile properly. Bile makes up part of the coloring of your stool.

If you notice that your stool is a different color than normal, it may be a dietary issue as opposed to the under-production of bile, it can also be related to coeliac disease. Always speak with a healthcare provider if you are concerned.

#7 Tendency to bruise easily

There is an increased tendency to bruise if you are living with liver damage.

  • Clotting factors are essential elements in the blood, however, if the body is producing too little of these, it means that the blood will not clot at an optimal rate, without the blood clotting properly, there is an increased likelihood of bruising and bleeding.

#8 Itchy or dry skin

Itchy or dry skin is a common symptom associated with liver disease, and it may become a problem at different stages of the diagnosis.

#9 Swelling and pain in the legs and abdominal pain

Swelling and pain in the legs and abdomen may be caused by a build-up of fluid.

  • A build-up of fluid caused by liver damage may occur if the liver is unable to produce enough proteins such as albumin.
  • Albumin helps keep fluid in the blood vessels, when there isn’t enough albumin produced by the liver, the fluid can leak out into the surrounding tissues and cause swelling.
  • Fluid accumulation in the legs is called edema, and fluid accumulation in the abdomen is called ascites. This is a rare symptom that is often connected to liver scarring or cirrhosis.

How to Diagnose Liver Dysfunction

To diagnose liver dysfunction or damage your healthcare provider will likely go through your health history and carry out a physical examination. As well as this, a liver function test or imaging test may be performed - both of which can help look for specific liver problems or damage.

What is the Treatment for Liver Disease?

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the damage. However, making healthy lifestyle changes can help support and improve your liver health. Some recommendations include

  • Avoiding alcohol or drinking alcohol in moderation (dependent on individual diagnosis)
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Stick to a healthy weight
  • Practice safe sex

If you are experiencing physical symptoms related to liver dysfunction, it’s important to seek out liver function testing options as soon as possible. Contact your physician if you are feeling extremely unwell.

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