Liver failure refers to the damage of liver beyond repair, which makes it unable to perform its normal functions. Generally, the condition progresses quite slowly and it can take years to completely damage a large portion of the liver. But, acute liver failure is a rare condition which can lead to complete liver damage within a couple of days. Sometimes, a short period of 48 hours can be sufficient to cause complete impairment of liver functions. This condition is associated with many severe complications including hepatic encephalopathy (explained below) that can lead to hepatic coma along with disruption of protein synthesis and renal failure.
The early signs of this condition cannot be regarded specific to the disease as they can be produced by many other health conditions and disorders. However, certain symptoms include fatigue, nausea, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. As the disease progresses, other prominent symptoms, such as jaundice (manifested in yellowing of the skin and sclera or the white portion of the eyes), can appear. Along with jaundice, individuals can experience tenderness in the upper right portion of the abdomen. Distension of the abdomen due to ascites formation can be an important symptom.
As mentioned already, it can lead to a severe condition known as hepatic encephalopathy which affects the functions of the brain. This condition arises due to the accumulation of toxic substances in the blood as the liver fails to filter them. These toxins, when they reach the brain through the bloodstream, affect the functions of the brain cells. This condition is characterized by gradual reduction in the cognitive abilities and its common symptoms include muscle tremors, mood changes, irritability, disorientation, poor attention, insomnia, delirium, and confusion. If not treated in time, the condition can worsen and cause hepatic coma. Bleeding problems like delay in blood clotting and bleeding easily can also occur as the liver fails to synthesize the sufficient amount of clotting factors needed for blood coagulation.
Acetaminophen is an analgesic (pain reliever) and antipyretic (alleviates fever) drug, and its overdose is found to be the leading cause; either a single overdose or small multiple doses of this drug for a few days. In addition to acetaminophen, excessive use of antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and anticonvulsant drugs can also cause acute liver failure. Three types of hepatitis―A, B, C―are also associated with this condition. Sometimes, it can be caused by autoimmune diseases, such as autoimmune hepatitis, where the body's own immune system attacks the liver cells.
Some other causes are liver cirrhosis, malnutrition, consumption of poisonous mushrooms, excessive alcohol consumption for a very long time, primary and secondary liver cancer, vascular liver diseases like portal vein thrombosis, and Bud-Chiari syndrome. In many instances, metabolic diseases like Reye's syndrome, and acute fatty liver of pregnancy can also be responsible for causing extensive damage to the liver in a very short time period.
It is not very easy to diagnose, and requires a detailed study of its symptoms, the use of medications, and various risk factors. Blood tests and proper examination of the liver tissues are also carried out to diagnose the disease. The treatment options mainly depend on the specific causes. If it is caused by an overdose of acetaminophen and other drugs, then treatment is directed towards reversing their effects, while if caused by infectious agents, medications for infection are used. Individuals are generally admitted to the intensive care unit for close observation. If the damage is severe and the patient's condition deteriorates over time, then liver transplantation can be required. Another treatment option for acute liver failure is liver dialysis.
Along with prompt treatment, keeping the risk factors under control is very important to prevent the frequency of the disease. Taking physician's advice and guidance while using any kind of medication, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, getting vaccinated for hepatitis liver diseases, maintaining hygiene, and eating a proper healthy and nutritious diet can play an important role in reducing the condition.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.