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What Causes a Swollen Liver?

By David Bishop
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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The liver is a vital organ that carries out a number of important functions in a person's body. A swollen liver is a serious medical condition in which the liver becomes enlarged as a result of illness or injury. Several conditions can lead to liver swelling, including hepatitis, cirrhosis, cancer and infection. In some cases, a swollen liver can be treated with drugs or lifestyle changes; in others, a liver transplant may be necessary.

Hepatitis is class of diseases of the liver usually caused by viruses or alcoholism. Hepatitis A, B and C are viral infections spread by sexual contact, needle use or other contact with bodily fluids. Viral hepatitis is incurable, although it can be managed with rest and proper nutrition. Chronic hepatitis can occur as the result of viral hepatitis or alcoholism. Most forms of hepatitis cause flu-like symptoms and can, if not treated, eventually lead to a swollen liver.

Along with hepatitis, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis occurs when scar tissue forms within the liver, eventually hindering normal functions. Obesity, diabetes and genetic diseases are additional causes and complicating factors of cirrhosis. Cancer can also result in a swollen liver and may be caused by previous liver disease or spread from metastasized cancer elsewhere in the body.

Several types of infections aside from hepatitis can cause liver swelling. These include malaria, mononucleosis, typhoid fever, brucellosis and the Espstein-Barr virus. This can be a life-threatening complication of these diseases and medical treatment should be sought in these cases.

Liver swelling is often accompanied by other symptoms of liver failure. Symptoms sometimes begin with fatigue and lack of appetite along with abdominal distress such as nausea and diarrhea. More severe liver conditions cause confusion, swelling and jaundice, which is a yellowing of the eyes and skin.

Liver disease can be diagnosed with simple blood tests known as liver panels. Patients with symptoms of liver failure or other abdominal complaints will usually be given these panels along with other blood tests. A physician can detect a swollen liver by feeling around the bottom of the rib cage on the right sight of the abdomen. If it is enlarged, he can usually feel the liver swelling out from underneath the ribs.

Patients who have symptoms of liver disease should see a doctor immediately. To avoid liver problems, a person should limit his or her intake of alcoholic beverages and use caution with drugs containing acetaminophen. Always use protection during sexual intercourse and avoid sharing needles.

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Discussion Comments
By ZipLine — On Apr 29, 2013

@ddljohn-- I don't agree with you, causes like that are rare. Usually a swollen liver is a sign of liver damage.

Did you know that our liver is the fastest renewing organ in our body? If someone has a persistently swollen liver for months and years, it means the liver is damaged.

By ddljohn — On Apr 29, 2013

@ysmina-- Yes, a swollen liver and an enlarged liver are the same thing. The medical term for it is hepatomegaly.

Did your aunt mention any other issues or symptoms? Does she also have a swollen spleen?

People usually assume the worst about a swollen liver and think of potential causes like cancer or cirrhosis. But that's not always the case. For example, I was also diagnosed with a swollen liver five years ago. After lots of testing, I found out that I have a fructose intolerance and fructose is digested by the liver. This was causing my liver to become enlarged.

I only had to make dietary changes and my liver went back to normal. So the cause of a swollen liver is not always difficult to treat and painful.

By ysmina — On Apr 28, 2013

I talked to my aunt over the phone this weekend and she told me that she was diagnosed with an enlarged liver. Is this the same as a swollen liver?

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