Overview of Liver Disease

The liver, which is the largest internal organ (i.e., organ inside the body; the skin is the largest human organ), is located on the right side of the abdomen, just below the ribcage. The term "liver disease" refers to a number of different conditions that affect liver function.

The liver performs many vital functions. It is primarily involved in metabolism (i.e., physical and chemical changes that take place in the body) and it also functions as a digestive organ (i.e., secretes a substance that aids in digestion [bile]). If the liver becomes damaged or weakened by disease, the patient's health and quality of life can be severely affected.

Functions of the liver include the following:

  • Filtering waste and toxins from the blood
  • Making and storing vitamins
  • Producing proteins and enzymes for digestion and blood clotting
  • Storing nutrients for later use

When liver disease is detected early and appropriate treatment is received, complications often can be reduced or prevented. However, if liver disease is undetected for a long period of time, complications usually occur. Liver disease generally progresses in the following manner:

  1. Inflammation
  2. Temporary scarring (fibrosis)
  3. Permanent scarring (called cirrhosis)
  4. Liver failure

Serious complications usually begin when scarring becomes permanent. Cirrhosis of the liver, also referred to as chronic liver disease or end-stage liver disease, eventually can lead to liver failure. Liver failure is life threatening and requires emergency medical care.

"Hepa-" is the medical prefix for liver. Hepatologists are gastroenterologists who specialize in treating liver disorders and hepatitis means inflammation of the liver (hepa = liver + itis = inflammation).

Incidence and Prevalence Liver disease affects millions of people in the United States. More than half of all cases of chronic (long-lasting) liver disease are caused by hepatitis B (HBV) and C (HCV). Fortunately, vaccines are available to protect against some types of hepatitis (e.g., hepatitis A [HAV], hepatitis B).

The rise in obesity has fueled an increase in the incidence of liver disease in the United States.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 16 Mar 2008

Last Modified: 24 Sep 2015