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Warning Signs Your Liver Sends You

Your liver is one of the most vital organs, so pay attention to the signs it's trying to tell you. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

The liver is one of the most vital organs we have and does a lot for your health. Without a proper functioning liver, your overall well-being is in jeopardy. When your liver is in trouble, there are warning signs it sends off and while some signals might be subtle, paying attention to your body is trying to tell you could be a matter of life or death. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with medical experts who explain the important roles the liver plays and signs of an unhealthy liver to watch out for. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


The Many Important Roles of the Liver


According to Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies, "The liver is an essential organ in the human body. It is responsible for filtering toxins out of the blood, breaking down fats, and producing bile to help digestion. The liver also stores nutrients, such as glycogen, which can be released into the blood to provide energy when needed. Without a healthy liver, many different systems in the body would start to break down. For example, without the liver's ability to filter toxins from the blood, they would build up and eventually poison the body. Therefore, the liver is an essential organ that helps keep us healthy and functioning correctly."

Sean Marchese, MS, RN, a registered nurse at The Mesothelioma Center with a background in oncology clinical trials and over 15 years of direct patient care experience adds, "The liver is an essential organ because it processes our blood to extract the nutrients we need, metabolizes drugs into structures our body can use and breaks down toxins for removal. Experts have identified over 500 liver functions, including bile production, glucose storage, amino acid regulation, iron storage, toxin clearance and blood clot regulation." 


Causes of Liver Damage

Woman wine

Mitchell says, "The liver is a vital organ that plays an essential role in many bodily functions. It helps filter toxins from the blood, produce essential enzymes and hormones, and store nutrients. Liver damage can occur when these functions are compromised. There are many potential causes of liver damage, including viral infections, alcoholism, and exposure to certain chemicals and drugs. In some cases, liver damage may result from a congenital defect or genetic disorder. Regardless of the cause, liver damage can lead to serious health complications. If left untreated, liver damage can progress to liver failure, which can be fatal. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for managing liver damage and preventing further complications. By understanding the causes of liver damage, we can better protect this vital organ from harm. The liver is a vital organ that plays an important role in detoxifying the body and helping to process nutrients. However, the liver can also be susceptible to toxins and other factors."

Marchese shares, "Common causes of liver damage include heavy drinking, obesity and visceral fat, and type 2 diabetes. One of the most dangerous sources of liver damage is hepatitis from sources such as injectable drugs, tattoos or body piercings, exposure to blood and body fluids or unprotected sex." 


Itchy Skin

Woman Scratching an itch

Dr. Steve Hruby, a Doctor of Chiropractic and founder at Kaizen Progressive Health says, "Itchy skin is one of the most typical symptoms of liver disease. If your skin is itchy, it could be an indication of obstructive jaundice. It can be caused by a variety of conditions, including bile duct stones, bile duct or head of pancreas cancer, and primary biliary cirrhosis. Itching induced by liver illness is frequently accompanied by no rash or skin sores. On the other hand, excessive scratching can result in obvious irritation, redness, and infection."



Young man with skin allergy

Dr. Hruby states, "If you notice little spider-like capillaries under your skin on your face or legs, you should examine for liver disease. Higher amounts of estrogen cause this illness, meaning that the liver is not functioning properly in the metabolism of your hormones. Spider angiomas are more common in people who have cirrhosis (liver disease) induced by alcohol than in people who do not."


Joint Swelling, Nausea, Bruising and Bleeding Frequently

older woman with leg pain
Shutterstock / AstroStar

According to Dr. Hruby, "A sick liver is marked by easy bleeding or bruising following injury. This could be related to a shortage of certain proteins required for blood clotting, implying that the liver is malfunctioning. Bruises are caused by blood pooling beneath the skin. When bruises initially form, they can be black and blue, brownish or purple. They change color and fade."

Marchese states, "Some warning signs of liver damage can occur throughout the body and seem unrelated. For example, joint pain and swelling may not seem related to nausea or frequent bruising, but these may be signs of liver damage caused by an autoimmune disease. Known as autoimmune hepatitis, this disease occurs when your immune system attacks healthy liver cells, causing an inflammatory response and decreased liver function." 


Inflammation of the Feet

Person's Hand Holding Ice Gel Pack On Ankle

"Fluid might build up in your legs if you have chronic liver disease," says Dr. Hruby. "Legs swell as a result of this. Due to increased pressure in the portal vein, fluid might develop in the legs (edema) (ascites). The liver's failure to produce enough blood proteins, such as albumin, can also cause edema and ascites."


Abdominal Swelling (Also Known as Ascites)

Man feeling stomach pain at home.

Dr. Hruby explains, "Fluid can build up in the belly due to chronic liver illness, causing abdominal distension. Ascites is a fluid buildup in the belly (abdominal) cavity caused by fluid leaks from the surface of the liver and intestine. Ascites from liver disease are commonly linked to other liver disease symptoms including portal hypertension. One of the symptoms of ascites is a bloated belly.

Ascites can be caused by several factors

  • Cirrhosis of the liver, particularly cirrhosis caused by drinking
  • Hepatitis caused by alcohol
  • Hepatic vein occlusion"

Marchese says, "Abdominal swelling is another common sign of liver damage. Ascites is the medical term for fluid buildup in the abdomen, which can be a sign of liver damage known as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver and develops after high blood pressure in the portal vein, the blood vessel that delivers blood to the liver from the digestive organs. This increased pressure causes kidney function to decrease, and fluid accumulates in the abdomen." 


Unexplained Fatigue

Woman suffering from stomach cramps on the sofa at home.

Mitchell says, "Fatigue is a common symptom of many liver diseases. The liver is responsible for filtering toxins from the blood and converting nutrients into energy. When the liver cannot function properly, it can lead to a build-up of toxins in the blood, which can cause fatigue. Fatigue can also be caused by anemia, a common complication of liver disease. Anemia occurs when the liver cannot produce enough of the protein needed to make red blood cells. This can cause fatigue and other symptoms such as shortness of breath and pale skin. If you are experiencing unexplained fatigue, it could signify that your liver is trying to send you a warning sign. If you are concerned about your liver health, it is essential to speak to your doctor for further testing and treatment options."


Yellowing of the Skin and Eyes (Jaundice)

close-up of woman's hazel eyes

Dr. Mitchell shares, "When our liver is unhealthy, it can send us warning signs in the form of yellow skin (jaundice). This is because the liver is responsible for filtering our blood, and when it isn't functioning properly, bilirubin starts to build up. Bilirubin is a yellow compound made when old red blood cells are broken down, and too much of it can cause our skin and eyes to take on a yellow tint. Jaundice can also signify liver damage, hepatitis, or even liver cancer. If you notice that your skin is beginning to turn yellow, it's essential to see a doctor. You may also experience other symptoms like fatigue, dark urine, or pain in the upper right side of your abdomen. These symptoms can all be indicators that something is wrong with your liver, so it's best to get checked out by a professional as soon as possible. This is caused by a build-up of bilirubin, a substance that is usually processed by the liver. When liver function is impaired, bilirubin can build up in the blood and cause the skin and eyes to take on a yellowish tint."

Marchese adds, "Potentially the most recognizable form of liver damage, the yellowing of the eyes and skin indicates that the liver cannot clear bilirubin. Bilirubin is a blood byproduct that a healthy liver can remove before levels become toxic. When the liver is damaged and unable to clear bilirubin, it builds up in the skin and sclera of the eyes, leading to a yellowish tint known as jaundice." 


Abdominal Pain

Young woman suffers, writhes in abdominal pain lying on couch in living room at home interior

Dr. Mitchell explains, "Think of your liver as the control center of your body. It's responsible for filtering out toxins, producing important enzymes and hormones, and aiding digestion. So when something goes wrong with your liver, it can have a major impact on your overall health. One way that liver damage can manifest is through abdominal pain. The liver is located in the upper right abdomen, just below the ribs. When it becomes inflamed or damaged, it can cause pain in that area. Liver damage can be caused by various factors, including viral hepatitis, fatty liver disease, and alcohol abuse. If you are experiencing abdominal pain, it's essential to see a doctor to rule out any severe liver conditions."


Dark Urine

Door knob on or off the bathroom

"A healthy liver helps filter out waste products from the blood," says Dr. Mitchell. "When liver function is impaired, these waste products can build up in the bloodstream and cause urine to darken. The liver is an essential organ that helps to filter out toxins and waste products from the blood. When it is functioning properly, the liver helps to keep the body healthy. However, when the liver is unhealthy, it can send warning signs to the rest of the body. One of these warning signs is dark urine. Dark urine can be a sign that the liver is not able to properly filter out toxins and waste products. This can lead to a build-up of these substances in the blood, which can be harmful to the body. If you notice that your urine is dark, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible so that they can check your liver function. Dark urine can be a sign of liver disease, so it is important to get checked out by a medical professional if you notice this symptom."


Pale Stool Color


Marchese explains, "A healthy stool is dark because it contains an average amount of bile that your body excretes regularly. If your stool is very pale, your body is not clearing an appropriate amount of bile, and it is not reaching the stool. Pale or clay-colored stools indicate a problem with your biliary system, which comprises the liver, pancreas and gallbladder. This sign could indicate hepatitis, biliary cirrhosis or gallstones." 

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather