What is the liver?

The liver is one of the vital organs, which sits on the right side of the abdomen. The liver is the largest internal organ in the body. It is also a gland, which means it synthesises substances to then release them in the bloodstream. Glands have different functions in the body, and the liver has many, performing over an estimated 500 different functions.

What does the liver do?

The liver’s main function is to filter the blood which comes through to it from the digestive tract, then pass it around the rest of the body, filtering toxins and making chemicals safe or metabolising them. The liver plays an important part in nutrition, metabolism, hormone production, and functions of the blood. It is an essential organ in the body, and if a significant amount of liver tissue is damaged, it can cause problems such as liver disease.

What happens when the liver is not functioning properly?

If the liver does not function as it should, different symptoms can appear, such as jaundice (when the skin looks yellow in colour), pain in the abdomen where the liver is located, bruising easily, swelling in the abdomen, nausea or vomiting, sleepiness or perhaps slurred speech, and general fatigue or feeling unwell. Depending on the condition, different symptoms present, and a liver function test may be necessary to determine the cause.

Conditions which can affect the liver include:

  • Hepatitis, both viral and non-viral.
  • Scarring on the liver, otherwise known as cirrhosis.
  • Liver failure, where the liver fails to function as it should. There are different stages of liver failure, known as chronic and acute. Chronic liver failure occurs over months or years, whereas acute liver failure comes on suddenly and rapidly.
  • Liver cancer
  • Fatty liver disease

There are many more conditions which affect the liver, which can be diagnosed by a GP or healthcare provider, and if necessary treated by a specialist, such as a gastroenterologist, or a hepatologist, a doctor specialising in the liver and its related functions. 

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