9 Things That Can Damage Your Liver

You may think alcohol is the only culprit, but many factors can lead to cirrhosis or liver damage.

Your liver is the largest organ in your body and has some equally big responsibilities. Among the many roles of the liver, some of the more well-known jobs include filtering the body's blood, processing nutrients, and storing energy.

Because it performs many functions, your liver is vulnerable to assault on multiple fronts. Scarring (cirrhosis) can occur if the liver becomes damaged, which can eventually cause liver failure or cancer.

And while most people associate liver damage with alcohol misuse, other factors can also play a role. Here, we explore the health conditions, drugs, and lifestyle habits that may cause your liver to become damaged—and what you can do to keep this vital organ healthy.

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What Happens When the Liver Is Damaged

Liver damage is associated with many medical conditions. For example, several forms of hepatitis, an infection affecting the liver, can lead to liver damage. Other conditions include liver cancer, Wilson disease, and damage caused by alcohol.

Because the liver is involved in numerous bodily functions, symptoms of liver damage are varied. They can include but are not limited to abdominal pain or swelling, yellow-appearing eyes or skin due to a condition known as jaundice, and abnormal liver function tests carried out by a healthcare provider.

When many people think of liver damage, they think of cirrhosis. This is the scarring of the liver and decreases liver function. However, cirrhosis is the last stage when someone has chronic liver disease.

Health Conditions That Cause Liver Damage

Several health conditions can directly cause or increase the risk of liver damage. Some of these health conditions include obesity, hepatitis, genetic diseases, and various autoimmune conditions.

Obesity

Obesity is thought to play a role in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which affects about 100 million people in the United States and "will soon be the number-one reason for liver transplantation in the U.S.," said David Bernstein, MD, chief of hepatology at Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York.

NAFLD happens when too much fat gets stored in liver cells. While experts don't know exactly what causes the condition, it is also linked to metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, and obesity.

When liver cells have too much fat, cirrhosis and liver failure can occur. Although people in their 40s and 50s have a higher risk of developing NAFLD, it can also occur in adolescents with obesity.

Hepatitis

Chronic hepatitis B and C are responsible for most cases of liver cancer worldwide. Hepatitis C, the more common cause in the U.S., is spread through contact with infected blood, meaning you can get it from sharing needles, unprotected sex (though this is less common), and rarely, blood transfusions. Getting a tattoo with a dirty needle also puts you at risk.

Chronic hepatitis C infection can usually be cured with drugs, but getting a quick diagnosis is essential. The disease is often referred to as a "silent killer" because many people don't know they have it, and it can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, liver failure, and death if left untreated. "The key is early detection and getting people therapy," said Dr. Bernstein.

Hepatitis B, also spread through infected blood, is less common in adults in the U.S. because a vaccine is available and recommended for most children.

Genetic Diseases

Genetics can also play a role in the health of your liver, and several hereditary conditions can lead to liver disease. The hereditary disease hemochromatosis, for example, causes a build-up of iron in the body, which can cause cirrhosis and eventual liver failure.

Less common is Wilson's disease, which causes a build-up of copper in the body, damaging not only the liver but also the brain and other organs.

Luckily, both conditions are treatable, if not curable. For hemochromatosis, iron levels in the body are reduced by regularly removing blood. For Wilson's disease, certain drugs called chelating agents can remove copper.

Your healthcare provider can screen for genetic disorders related to the liver during your checkups. This usually involves a blood test.

Autoimmune Diseases


Certain autoimmune diseases can also impact liver function. When the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the liver, it's called autoimmune hepatitis. No one knows exactly what causes the body to turn on itself, but genetic factors may play a role. This disease usually affects people assigned female at birth, and it's also more common in people with another autoimmune disease.

Primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) is another autoimmune disease that usually affects people assigned female at birth. Both conditions can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure if not treated. Although there's no cure for autoimmune hepatitis or PBC, treatment can keep you healthy.

"As long as you keep things under control, you can live a normal life expectancy," said Dr. Bernstein.

Medications That Affect Liver Heath

Numerous medications can affect liver health. Many individuals are familiar with acetaminophen, or Tylenol, as it's commonly known, which can be harmful in high doses. However, Tylenol can hide in both other over-the-counter and prescription medications. Other medications can impact liver health as well.

Acetaminophen

Sold over-the-counter as Tylenol and found in prescription medications such as Vicodin or Percocet, acetaminophen in high doses can cause liver failure and even death.

If an overdose is treated right away, the chances of surviving it are good—but a better course is prevention. Never take more than the recommended dose of acetaminophen (or any medication, for that matter), and make sure you aren't taking more than one medication that contains the ingredient.

Since acetaminophen is often found in over-the-counter cold and flu medications, it's important to remember to check the ingredient labels for any over-the-counter drugs you are taking.

"There's acetaminophen in dozens of products," said Daniel F.Schafer, MD, professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. This includes many cough-and-cold formulas.

Other Drugs

In addition to acetaminophen, other drugs can also harm your liver. For example, long-term use of anabolic steroids (male hormones that some athletes use to improve their performance) has been linked to a slightly higher risk of liver cancer. Illegal drugs, including heroin and cocaine, and dissociative (psychedelic) drugs, can also cause liver damage.

For many reasons, avoid misusing drugs—legal and illegal. If you notice symptoms of liver damage (such as jaundice, dark urine, or pain in your abdomen), speak with a healthcare provider about any drugs you may be taking.

Lifestyle Factors That Can Damage Your Liver

While an individual may have little control over whether or not they have a medical condition that increases the risk of liver damage or whether they need to take medications, most individuals have some control over lifestyle habits.

Smoking

Here's yet another reason to quit: Smoking can increase the risk of liver cancer and liver cirrhosis. A 2013 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology found that smoking was associated with an increased risk of liver cirrhosis independent of alcohol intake.

The toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke can cause inflammation and eventual cirrhosis. Smoking also promotes the production of cytokines, chemicals that cause even more inflammation and damage liver cells. Another concern: In people with hepatitis B or C, smoking can increase the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of liver cancer.

Alcohol

Although other factors play a role, alcohol misuse remains a major cause of cirrhosis and subsequent liver disease. An estimated 10 to 15% of heavy drinkers will develop liver scarring. This means that drinking in moderation (or not at all) can go a long way toward keeping your liver healthy. And if you already have liver damage, it's still important to abstain.

"There are no magic pills to get rid of cirrhosis," said Dr. Bernstein. "Management is stopping alcohol."

Current CDC guidelines recommend that women consume no more than one alcoholic beverage a day and men no more than two. And mind your portions: One drink is considered to be 12 ounces of beer or five ounces of wine.

Soda and Sugary Beverages


Sugar-laden sodas are a notorious cause of weight gain, so it's not surprising that they've also been linked to liver damage.

One 2015 study published in The Journal of Hepatology found that people who drank one or more sugar-sweetened beverages a day had higher markers of fatty liver disease than those who didn't drink any sugary drinks or who opted for diet varieties (although this doesn't mean that diet sodas are a healthful choice). This risk was highest among people who were already obese or overweight.

Research published in Pediatric Obesity in 2013 found that people who consumed two sugary drinks a day for six months showed signs of fatty liver disease.

The bottom line? Cutting back on soda has been shown to aid weight loss, and doing so may help keep your liver healthy, too.

A Quick Review

Liver damage is associated with several medical conditions and medications. As liver damage progresses, it can eventually turn into cirrhosis. Lifestyle factors such as quitting smoking or limiting alcohol intake may help slow down the progression of the disease.

If you have any signs or symptoms of liver damage or risk factors you would like to address, consider reaching out to a healthcare provider. They can recommend any further evaluations or testing.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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