COLUMN: Staying healthy: Your liver is an important organ

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It is very important to have a functioning liver, because the liver plays a big role in keeping us healthy. Most of us know that drinking alcohol in excess can cause liver damage.

There are other causes of liver damage, including several different viruses. In cases of liver damage, the patient may develop jaundice, a yellow coloration in the skin and the eyes. Since other early signs are subtle, sometimes jaundice is the first sign. Blood tests are called liver function tests. A normal liver is between 2 and 4 pounds.

The liver is in the upper right part of the abdomen. One of its functions is to help in digestion. Many other functions are so important that if the liver fails, it cannot be replaced by a machine. In fact, if a liver fails, the only treatment is liver transplant. There is not yet a long-term liver dialysis.

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. This may be caused by a virus known as hepatitis A, B, C, D, or E. Each of these is different and our knowledge is still growing. Some are potentially fatal. Gastrointestinal (GI) specialists are doctors who care for the various forms of hepatitis. Some are caused by use of illegal drugs or risky sexual behavior. There are immunizations available for some. Your regular doctor will refer you to a liver specialist, if need be. Treatment is very important for these viral illnesses.

Second cause of liver disease is alcohol. This is usually caused by long-term drinking, and it can eventually lead to liver damage so severe that it is fatal. Drinking alcohol should always be self-limited and that is important as we age. One drink a day is considered the limit for women, and two drinks a day for men. Again, transplant is sometimes done, but if a liver transplant is considered, it is important that the patient is no longer drinking alcohol. This condition is sometimes called cirrhosis of the livers.

There are other causes of liver disease. A person with mononucleosis (mono) may have liver involvement and develop jaundice, but the liver problem usually goes away. Mono generally occurs in young adults.

Other liver diseases can occur in children. This includes some cancers, some infections, and some inherited defects.

Cancer of many different organs may involve spread to the liver and the patient will develop jaundice. This is usually late in the course of cancer, such as cancer of the colon and intestine.

The patient with early liver problems may feel fine but have abnormal blood tests. These tests are included in routine blood tests that most doctors order once a year. There are also blood tests for the various liver infections. A test, such as a CT scan will show signs of damage and suggest what the cause may be. A liver biopsy may also be done. It is easy to access the liver for testing.

We are barely aware of the important things that our liver does for us. One way to try to prevent liver disease is to stop drinking alcohol or to cut back on excess alcohol intake. Stay away from risky behavior. This means do not take illegal drugs and avoiding risky sexual behavior. If you have such problems, talk to your doctor. You may need testing and you may be a candidate for immunization against some forms of viral hepatitis.

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