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What Causes Liver Disease

Most frequently liver diseases are caused by one of these factors:

Viral Hepatitis

Hepatitis is an inflammatory liver condition that can be caused by a group of viruses. The most common hepatitis viruses are A, B and C, with D and E being the milder forms:

  1. Hepatitis A: Usually considered the most common type of the disease, Hepatitis A virus (HAV) causes swelling of the liver, which affects its normal functions. The virus is spread through the faecal-oral route, while food-borne outbreaks are also common. Symptoms, which include fatigue, itching and jaundice (yellow skin) typically appear after two to six weeks and can remain in the body for over two months.  It is the most common form of Hepatitis today.
  2. Hepatitis B: The Hepatitis B virus (HBV) enters the bloodstream through bodily fluids like blood and semen. The virus multiplies in the liver cells, which triggers an immune response as the body tries to eliminate the virus and recover from the infection. The immune response causes liver inflammation and can seriously injure liver cells. HBV can remain in the body for over six months, which is when it will take on the chronic form. If left untreated, the chronic (long-lasting) form of the disease can lead to liver scarring, cirrhosis and even cancer.
  3. Hepatitis C: An infectious Hepatitis that is usually spread through blood transfusions, in which a person comes directly in contact with blood infected with Hepatitis C virus. If doctor’s advice is not sought at the earliest, it can develop into a chronic form of liver disease. Patients who are on long-term dialysis treatment, drug users or those born to a mother infected with Hepatitis C, are at risk of developing the disease.
  4. Hepatitis D: Hepatitis D virus or Hepatitis delta virus is a RNA virus that is only found in patients with HBV. The virus is incapable of or causing any injury to the liver on its own and therefore, attaches itself to the Hepatitis B virus. When both viruses are present in the body, Hepatitis D can make acute HBV much worse. It can cause symptoms to appear in people with HBV.
  5. Hepatitis E: Hepatitis E virus starts multiplying in the gastrointestinal tract, but affects the liver primarily. Mostly, symptoms caused by the virus are mild and disappear within a few weeks. They are not known to have any lasting effects.


Drugs can affect the liver in several ways. They can cause dose-dependent toxicity, idiosyncratic toxicity and drug allergy. The liver can become temporarily inflamed or permanently damaged by exposure to drugs.

  1. Recreational drugs: Recreational drugs like heroine, ecstasy and cocaine greatly injure the liver and cause irreversible damage.
  2. Prescription drugs: Some prescription drugs are also known to damage liver cells, e.g. anti-TB drugs and medications for management  of lifestyle disorders. Acetaminophen, a substance commonly found in a lot of medication, can cause severe hepatoxicity when used for prolonged duration.


When one consumes alcohol, it passes through the stomach to the intestine and from there it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Blood from the stomach and the intestine goes through the liver before circulating in the entire body. This means that the blood with highest alcohol contamination flows through the liver first!

Liver cells can only process a certain amount of alcohol per hour. When one consumes too much alcohol, normal liver function may be interrupted. If the liver is required to detoxify alcohol on a continual basis, the cells may be destroyed or altered, resulting in a series of liver problems. These include:

  • Fatty liver: Characterized by a build-up of fat cells in the liver, resulting in an enlarged liver. You may experience discomfort in your upper abdomen. Fatty liver occurs in almost all people who consume a large amount of alcohol.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis: An inflammation of the liver due to excessive alcohol consumption. In its mild form, alcoholic hepatitis can remain in the body for years and cause progressive liver damage. In its severe form, the disease may occur suddenly after binge drinking and can quickly lead to life-threatening complications.
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis: The most serious type of alcohol-induced liver disease. Cirrhosis refers to the replacement of normal liver tissue with scar tissue. Cirrhosis is a life-threatening as the damage caused by the disease is irreversible. Many heavy drinkers will progress from fatty liver to alcoholic hepatitis and finally to alcoholic cirrhosis. The progression, however, will vary from people to people.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a term used to describe the accumulation of fat in the liver of people who drink little or no alcohol. It occurs when liver has difficulty in breaking down fats and it accumulates in liver tissue. The disease is common and in most people, it causes no complications. However, when fat is accumulated over a long period of time, it can cause inflammation and liver scarring. In most severe cases, the condition progresses to liver failure. Losing weight, opting for a healthier diet and exercising regularly can go a long way in keeping non-alcoholic fatty liver disease at bay.


Liver cancer is a condition in which carcinogens attack liver tissues. An example of primary liver cancer includes hepatocellular carcinoma. While primary liver cancer is pretty rare, other forms of cancer can metastasize (spreading from one part of the body to another) into liver cancer. This happens because liver filters high volumes of blood, which may be carrying cancer cells. Common cancers that spread to the liver begin in the lung, breast, large intestine, stomach, and pancreas. Leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma may also involve the liver. Some serious hepatic conditions like Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C can eventually lead to liver cancer, if left untreated.

Inherited metabolic liver diseases

Wilson’s Disease: An inherited disorder in which the body’s ability to metabolize copper is affected. As a result, copper builds up in various organs in the body, including the liver. Failure to diagnose the disease can result in hepatic failure as too much copper injures the liver.

Hemchromatosis: A hereditary disease in which the gastrointestinal tract absorbs a lot of iron. Too much iron in the body affects the liver negatively, leading to enlarged liver, cirrhosis, cancer and even liver failure. People suffering from this condition are advised to never consume iron supplements.