Liver disease, which occurs in about 1 of every 10 Americans, can affect anyone at any age. October is Liver Health Awareness Month, meaning now is a good time to learn more about the range of liver diseases. Here, Anita Kumar, MD, assistant clinical professor of gastroenterology at the George Washington University (GW) Medical Faculty Associates (MFA), explains why the liver is important, what liver diseases can look like, and how you can mitigate your risk of developing liver disease.
Q. Why is liver health important?
Kumar: The liver is the human body’s largest internal organ, and it’s responsible for removing toxins, processing food nutrients, and regulating body metabolism. The liver helps the body by providing it with energy, fighting off infections, removing toxins, producing clotting factors, and regulating hormones. Given the many important functions of the liver, maintaining a healthy liver can have a significant impact on overall health and well-being.
Q. How common is liver disease?
Kumar: In the U.S., approximately 30 million people have some form of liver disease. Some of the common liver diseases include viral hepatitis, autoimmune hepatitis, drug-induced liver injury, hemochromatosis, primary biliary cholangitis, alcoholic liver disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, all of which can lead to cirrhosis or scarring of the liver.
Q. What are symptoms of liver disease?
Kumar: Liver disease does not always cause overt signs and symptoms, but those that do occur may include skin and eyes that appear yellow (jaundice), abdominal pain, abdominal swelling (ascites), lower-extremity edema, itching, dark urine color, pale stool color, fatigue, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal bleeding, and a tendency to bruise easily.
Q. What are risk factors for liver disease?
Kumar: Factors that may increase your risk of liver disease include heavy alcohol use, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, tattoos or body piercings, injecting drugs and using shared needles, blood transfusions before 1992, exposure to other people’s blood and body fluids, a personal history of autoimmune disease, unprotected sex, exposure to certain chemicals or toxins, and a family history of liver disease.
Q. Can patients do anything to mitigate risk factors?
Kumar: Abstain from drinking too much alcohol, avoid unprotected sex, avoid IV drug use, get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, take only prescription and nonprescription drugs as recommended, avoid herbals or over the counter medications that are not FDA recommended, avoid contact with other people’s blood and body fluids, wash your hands thoroughly before eating or preparing foods, avoid toxic chemicals, and maintain a healthy weight.
Q. How does the MFA care for patients at risk for or diagnosed with liver disease?
Kumar: The MFA has liver doctors known as hepatologists who can schedule office visits to check for liver disease through labs and imaging, and they can manage both acute and chronic liver disease with current and experimental treatments for liver disease.
To make an appointment with a hepatologist, visit the GW MFA Division of Gastroenterology and Liver Diseases or call 202-741-3333.