Liver failure means that significant parts of the liver aren’t able to heal. The liver is the largest glandular organ of the body and has many functions, including the ability to filter out harmful substances. Liver failure is a life-threatening condition that means your liver has lost all or most of its ability to function. It can be chronic or acute.
Chronic vs. Acute Liver Failure
Chronic liver failure develops gradually, usually over the course of several years. Chronic liver failure is usually caused by hepatitis B or C, cirrhosis of the liver, alcohol abuse or malnutrition Acute liver failure is less common, and can develop over the course of 48 hours. Acute liver failure is usually the result of a medication overdose or poisoning.
According to the American Liver Foundation, no matter what type of liver disease you have, damage to your liver is likely to progress in a predictable way. In the early stages of liver disease, your liver becomes tender and enlarged. An inflamed liver usually has no symptoms. If it is untreated, it can begin to cause permanent liver damage. Scar tissue gradually replaces healthy tissue, a process known as fibrosis. When the liver can no longer heal itself, it is called cirrhosis.
Symptoms of final stage liver failure include yellowing of the skin and eyes, bruising or bleeding easily, sleepiness and build-up of fluid, particularly in the abdomen, which is known as ascites. You may become confused and disoriented. There is a risk of coma and death.
Treatment depends on whether liver failure is acute or chronic. If acute liver failure is caught early enough, damage can sometimes be reversed. Alcohol must be avoided, and controls are placed on salt and protein intake. When liver failure is chronic and has developed over the course of a long period of time, treatment focuses on saving whatever part of the liver is still functioning. By the final stage of liver failure, a liver transplant may be required.
A liver transplant is surgery to replace a diseased liver with a healthy one, either a whole liver or a portion of a healthy liver. A portion of a healthy liver is capable of growing into a whole liver. Transplant may be the only option for a patient who is likely to die from liver failure. According to the American Liver Foundation, about 17,000 Americans are on a waiting list for a liver transplant. See resources for more information on liver transplants.