What is Liver Disease?

What is Liver Disease?

The liver is the largest solid organ in your body. Liver disease occurs when the liver is damaged from causes such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, alcohol use disorder, viral hepatitis, and/or genetic factors. One in 10 Americans, or about 30 million people in the U.S., have liver disease.

The liver’s function is to regulate your blood as it leaves the stomach and intestines and performs various processes like removing toxins, metabolizing nutrients, and getting rid of waste products. The liver also produces bile, which helps remove waste from your body. Biliary diseases occur when the bile ducts and gallbladder are damaged, impairing bile production.

If left untreated, liver disease can lead to cirrhosis, or scarring of liver tissue. Cirrhosis can ultimately disable the liver entirely, resulting in liver failure and/or liver cancer, which can be life-threatening.

Types of Liver Diseases


There are a variety of liver diseases caused by a range of issues, from viral infections and cancer to autoimmune conditions. Our teams provide care for every type and stage of liver and bile duct disorder, including:

  • Acute liver failure, which occurs when the liver’s function deteriorates rapidly. Acute liver failure is typically caused by a medication, virus, or autoimmune disease. Acute liver failure is much rarer than chronic liver failure.
  • Alcohol associated liver disease: Excess alcohol use can damage the liver cells and lead to cirrhosis and/or liver failure.
  • Autoimmune hepatitis involves the immune system attacking liver cells, leading to inflammation and liver damage.
  • Bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) is a rare disorder where cancer cells develop in the bile ducts.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver is a late stage of liver disease that involves the liver developing scar tissue and not being able to function properly. The scar tissue prevents the liver from processing nutrients, drugs and natural toxins and can be life-threatening.
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), occurs when fat builds up inside the liver. This disease is typically seen in patients with diabetes, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and/or weight problems.
  • Gallstones and other gallbladder diseases affect the gallbladder, which is the sac inside the liver that stores bile. Gallbladder diseases include inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis), gallstones or gangrene.
  • Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus and leads to liver infection. The condition can either be acute or chronic – the latter of which can be a lifelong illness.
  • Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C infection and is often spread through needle sharing or other types of contact via blood. Hepatitis C can also be acute, but in some cases can lead to chronic, serious issues like cirrhosis and liver cancer. This infection is curable with a brief course of antiviral therapy.
  • Hepatitis D is caused by the hepatitis D virus and only occurs in people who have hepatitis B. It’s spread through blood and bodily fluids and can develop into a serious, chronic condition.
  • Liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) occurs when cancer cells develop in the liver. Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common form of primary liver cancer.
  • Portal hypertension involves heightened pressure inside the portal venous system, or the vein that connects to the liver. Portal hypertension can be triggered by the obstruction of blood flow in the portal vein, and is most commonly caused by cirrhosis.
  • Primary biliary cholangitis (PBC) is a chronic disorder caused by the deterioration of bile ducts, leading to bile buildup in the liver. PBC is progressive and can lead to cirrhosis.
  • Primary (PSC) and secondary sclerosing cholangitis are chronic cholestatic liver diseases which result in reduced or halted bile flow. These conditions are linked to scarring of bile and liver tissues, and can ultimately lead to cirrhosis.

Signs & Symptoms of Cirrhosis of the Liver


Many liver diseases have no symptoms until the liver condition becomes more advanced. Your primary care doctor should screen for liver diseases and hepatitis using blood tests.

If you have liver or biliary disease, your symptoms may vary depending on which type of disorder you have and how advanced it is. The specialists at NewYork-Presbyterian are experienced in identifying liver damage symptoms and finding the best treatments for you.

Some of the most common signs and symptoms of liver disease include:

  • Pain in the right upper abdomen
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • Itchy skin
  • Swelling of the abdomen
  • Change in the color of the urine and/or stool
  • Fatigue (feeling tired)
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling confused/disoriented

What Causes Liver Disease?


There are many different causes of liver disease, some of which are not known. Among the most common known causes are:

  • Excessive alcohol use or drug abuse. Every time the liver processes alcohol, some liver cells die. Chronic alcohol abuse can slowly weather down the liver’s ability to regenerate cells, leading to permanent liver damage.
  • Hepatitis B and C viruses. Hepatitis viruses can cause inflammation in the liver, which can lead to complications like cirrhosis.
  • Autoimmune disorders involve the immune system attacking the liver, causing inflammation, liver damage and bile duct damage. Because autoimmune disorders are chronic and recurring, they can gradually degrade liver cells over time, resulting in cirrhosis.
  • Congenital problems, meaning you are born with a liver disorder. Congenital liver disorders are rare and are typically present at birth. Many affect the bile ducts and impair the flow of bile, such as biliary atresia or biliary (choledochal) cysts. Congenital disorders are diagnosed at birth or at a young age through blood or stool tests, or liver enzyme tests.
  • Genetic factors, with some families inheriting a predisposition to liver problems, such as hemochromatosis and Wilson’s disease. Hemochromatosis and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency are the most common forms of inherited liver diseases caused by genetic factors.
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in the setting of type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol/triglycerides. Developing type 2 diabetes or obesity can lead to a buildup of fat in the liver which can cause nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
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Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Liver Disease Care

People who come to NewYork-Presbyterian for the care of liver and biliary diseases benefit from the expertise of renowned physicians and surgeons, access to every type of treatment available, and opportunities to receive innovative therapies to address liver function.

Our liver care teams include hepatologists (liver doctors), gastroenterologists, interventional endoscopists, liver surgeons, oncologists, infectious disease specialists, nurses and nurse practitioners, physician assistants, registered dieticians, psychiatrists, social workers, and others with experience caring for people with liver disorders. Your team includes internationally renowned leaders in research, too, ensuring you are receiving the most up-to-date therapies available.

Many liver diseases are associated with other disorders or have complications. If this is the case for you, we can connect you with other doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian to address those medical needs as well – all in one medical center – so you can receive seamless, coordinated care.