Signs That Your Liver Isn’t Delivering

Your liver works hard to protect your health. It’s a rugged, strong organ!

But certain things—like alcohol, drugs, viruses, and excess weight—can damage it. You may not even realize when your liver is struggling, because liver disease usually has no symptoms until the problem becomes severe. Help your liver to guard your health by avoiding the things that might cause it harm.

Your liver helps rid your body of natural waste products and other harmful substances. If something interferes with this process, toxic compounds can build up in your body.

Jaundice happens when you have too much of a compound called bilirubin. Bilirubin forms when your body breaks down old or damaged red blood cells. The most common symptom is a yellow tint to your skin, the whites of your eyes, or the inside of your mouth. You may also have dark urine or pale stools.

In adults, many health conditions can lead to jaundice.

One of the more common causes is when bile ducts get blocked. Bile ducts drain bilirubin from the liver into the intestines. They can get blocked by hard, pebble-like pieces of material that form in the gallbladder, called gallstones. Gallstones are usually made of bilirubin or cholesterol (a waxy, fat-like substance). Cancers of the bile duct or pancreas can also cause a blockage.

Jaundice can also be a sign of liver disease. Some liver diseases are caused by drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs. Others are caused by too much fat buildup in the liver.

Misusing certain medications, like acetaminophen, can damage the liver and lead to jaundice. So can hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver. Viruses are the most common cause of hepatitis. But the condition can be caused by other things, like toxins and certain diseases.

If a liver disease lasts for only a short time, the liver may be able to heal. But if the disease becomes chronic, meaning it lasts for a long time, it can lead to scarring of the liver. This scarring is called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis can impair the liver’s ability to function and may eventually lead to liver failure.

Not everyone who has jaundice has a serious health condition. Some people are born with a condition called Gilbert syndrome. This condition slows the liver’s ability to break down bilirubin. It can lead to short periods of high bilirubin levels and, sometimes, jaundice. But it doesn’t lead to further complications and doesn’t need special treatment.

Treatment depends on the cause.

Gallstones are most commonly treated with surgery to remove the gallbladder. Liver damage that’s caused by medications will often heal once you stop taking the medication. Antiviral drugs can treat hepatitis virus infections. People with a chronic liver disease should limit alcohol use to prevent further liver damage.

Steps you can take to protect yourself from things that damage the liver:

  • Eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Take steps to prevent hepatitis infections. Get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. Always wash your hands after using the toilet, changing diapers, and before and after handling or preparing food.
  • Limit alcohol use. Drinking too much alcohol harms the liver.
  • Quit smoking. You can get free help quitting at 1-800-QUIT-NOW or
  • Take medications only as directed.
  • Tell your provider about all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter drugs and supplements.

Maintain a healthy weight, stay physically active, and limit your alcohol use. Keep your liver healthy, and it will protect you for a lifetime.

If you have any symptoms of jaundice, see a health care provider right away.