Liver Inflammation Guide

Medically Reviewed By Youssef (Joe) Soliman, MD
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Liver inflammation occurs when there is damage to liver cells. “Hepatitis” is the term for liver inflammation. Some forms of liver inflammation produce mild symptoms and resolve on their own. Others can be serious or life threatening. The severity, treatment, and outcome of liver inflammation depend largely on the type of hepatitis you have.

Chronic or recurring liver inflammation can result in scar tissue as the liver tries to repair itself. This fibrosis can begin to interfere with liver function. Left untreated, it can progress to end-stage liver disease and liver failure.

This article explains liver inflammation, including its causes, symptoms, and treatments.

What is liver inflammation?

The liver is an organ in the digestive system. It assists digestion and carries out many other essential functions. These jobs include clearing toxins from the blood, making bile and certain hormones, and controlling fat storage and cholesterol production and release. An inflamed liver cannot do these tasks properly.

Liver inflammation occurs when liver cells are damaged. “Hepatitis” is the medical term for liver inflammation.

Viral hepatitis is the most common form. Damage to the liver from alcohol, toxins, and certain drugs can also cause liver inflammation. Other causes include some inherited diseases, autoimmune disorders, and prolonged blockage of bile flow.

Most cases of hepatitis will procedure mild or no symptoms and resolve on their own.

However, if liver inflammation continues, recurs, or is severe, it can lead to fibrosis. This is scarring of the liver as it tries to heal itself. With treatment, fibrosis can be reversible, but continued damage can eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver, or permanent scarring.

Viral infection is the main reason liver inflammation occurs. This includes both hepatotropic (hepatitis) viruses and non-hepatotropic viruses. Of the several types of hepatotropic viruses, the most common ones in the United States are hepatitis A, B, and C.

Depending on the type, viral hepatitis can spread through:

  • ingestion of contaminated food or water
  • contact with blood that carries the virus
  • sexual contact with a person who has the virus

A pregnant person can also pass it to their baby during childbirth.

What are the symptoms of liver inflammation?

Symptoms of liver inflammation can involve several body systems. The initial symptoms can be similar to the flu.

Women laying on her side holding her stomach
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Common symptoms of liver inflammation

There are various causes of liver inflammation. The symptoms can vary somewhat depending on the cause. At times, any of these symptoms can be severe:

Contact your doctor if you have any of these symptoms. 

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition

In some cases, liver inflammation can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for potentially serious symptoms, including:

What causes liver inflammation?

Liver inflammation has various causes. Viral infections are a common cause, along with toxic exposures and some inherited conditions. 

Causes of liver inflammation include the following:

  • alcohol use disorder, including fatty liver disease and alcoholic cirrhosis
  • alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, an inherited condition that predisposes you to liver and lung damage
  • autoimmune disorders
  • decreased blood flow to the liver
  • drugs or toxins, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), statins, and certain supplements
  • hemochromatosis, a disorder of excess iron in the body
  • non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
  • obstructive jaundice
  • viral infections, including hepatitis viruses, Epstein-Barr virus, and herpes simplex virus
  • Wilson’s disease, a disorder leading to excess copper deposition in the body

What are the risk factors for liver inflammation?

A number of risk factors increase the risk of developing liver inflammation. Not all people with risk factors will get liver inflammation. 

Risk factors for liver inflammation include:

  • alcohol use disorder
  • consumption of contaminated water or food
  • contact with the utensils, bedding, clothing, or personal items of someone who has infectious hepatitis
  • diseases that require multiple blood transfusions
  • exposure to the blood or bodily fluids of a person who has infectious hepatitis
  • exposure to contaminated needles, including tattoo needles
  • obesity
  • sexual contact with a person who has infectious hepatitis
  • travel to places with contaminated water or underdeveloped sanitation practices

How can you reduce your risk of hepatitis?

Lowering your risk of hepatitis depends on the cause. Drinking alcohol can worsen liver damage and inflammation regardless of the cause. 

Alcohol-related liver inflammation

The more alcohol you drink, and the more often you drink alcohol, the higher your risk of fatty liver disease.  Avoiding alcohol will reduce the risk of alcohol-related liver inflammation, called alcoholic hepatitis.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

The cause of NAFLD is not entirely clear. However, there are several risk factors for the disease. Addressing them can help lower your risk. This includes losing weight if you are overweight or obese and treating chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and metabolic disorders.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is mainly a foodborne illness. Reducing your risk involves:

  • avoiding contact with the utensils, bedding, clothing, or personal items of someone with hepatitis A
  • boiling potentially contaminated water before drinking it or using it to brush your teeth
  • getting the hepatitis A vaccine
  • limiting travel to places without modern sanitation procedures

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B mainly spreads through infected bodily fluids. These include blood, semen, and other secretions. You can reduce the risk of acquiring hepatitis B by:

  • avoiding contact with the blood or bodily fluids of people who have the virus
  • ensuring proper cleaning of needles and equipment for piercing and tattooing
  • getting the hepatitis B vaccine
  • avoiding IV drugs and contact with used needles
  • practicing safe sex, including using a condom every time you have sex

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is mainly a bloodborne infection. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. However, you can reduce your risk of contracting it by:

  • ensuring proper cleaning of needles and equipment for piercing and tattooing
  • avoiding IV drugs and contact with used needles

It is possible for hepatitis C to spread through sexual contact. If you do not know your partner’s status, practice safe sex to reduce risk.

Drug-induced liver inflammation

If you take a medicine that can cause liver problems, your doctor will likely order regular monitoring. This may include blood tests to check liver enzyme levels. Follow your doctor’s recommendations to keep your liver healthy.

How is hepatitis and liver inflammation treated?

Treatment of hepatitis varies depending on the type of hepatitis. Treatment includes:

  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • getting rest
  • stopping alcohol use
  • stopping medications that may damage the liver, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • stopping medications that increase your risk of bleeding, such as aspirin
  • taking antiviral drugs for the treatment of some forms of viral hepatitis.

The choice of antiviral drug or drugs depends on the type of viral hepatitis you have. Your doctor may also consider the strain of the virus.

Untreated or poorly controlled liver inflammations can progress to end-stage liver disease or liver failure. Treatment for liver failure is a liver transplant.

What you can do to improve viral forms of liver inflammation

In addition to following your treatment plan, you can also help reduce your symptoms and transmission of viral hepatitis to other people by:

  • carefully cleaning up any blood spills and covering all cuts and open sores
  • informing your doctor if you are pregnant and have viral hepatitis
  • maintaining a well-balanced diet
  • monitoring liver function as your doctor recommends
  • not preparing or handling food for others if you have hepatitis A until you are no longer able to transmit it
  • stopping or drastically limiting alcohol use to protect your liver
  • informing sexual partners if you have a type of hepatitis that spreads by sexual contact

What are the potential complications of liver inflammation?

Complications of untreated or poorly controlled liver inflammation can be serious and even life threatening in some cases. Most complications arise from chronic liver disease unless there is acute severe hepatitis.

Liver fibrosis is when liver inflammation has caused scar tissue in the liver. Depending on the degree of fibrosis, it may be reversible with treatment. Cirrhosis, however, is advanced fibrosis that is unlikely to be reversible.

Cirrhosis means liver tissue has been replaced with scar tissue, which compromises liver function. Severe acute types of hepatitis can also lead to the liver’s inability to clear out toxins.

A buildup of toxins in the body can cross the blood-brain barrier and result in changes in mental status and decreased brain function (encephalopathy). This is one criterion for diagnosing liver failure, and it is closely monitored, usually in the hospital, and is a consideration for a possible liver transplant.

Portal hypertension is another complication. This results from increased pressure on blood vessels in the liver. When there is significant inflammation or significant scar tissue to the level of cirrhosis, portal hypertension may occur. Signs include abdominal swelling (ascites) and bleeding from varices (veins in the esophagus and stomach).

Summary

Liver inflammation, or hepatitis, has many causes. The most common one is an infection with a hepatitis virus. In the U.S., the main ones are hepatitis viruses A, B, and C.

Frequent and heavy alcohol consumption is another common cause. This is called alcoholic hepatitis.

Treatment of hepatitis depends on the specific cause. With viral hepatitis, the type of virus determines the needed treatment.

With all forms of hepatitis, stopping alcohol use, avoiding liver-toxic drugs, and maintaining a healthy diet and moderate weight can help.

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Medical Reviewer: Youssef (Joe) Soliman, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 14
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