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What is Hepatotoxicity?

By Meshell Powell
Updated Feb 25, 2024
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Hepatotoxicity is a medical term used to describe liver damage, particularly liver damage caused by the use of medications. Certain medications, such as those used to treat HIV, are known to lead to hepatotoxicity in some patients. Some specific medical conditions, including hepatitis, are categorized under the label of hepatotoxicity. Some potential symptoms may include nausea, abdominal pain, or fatigue. Treatment often involves changing the medications which may be causing the hepatotoxicity.

Prescription medications, herbal remedies, and natural chemicals can each lead to hepatotoxicity. In fact, this is the most common reason for a medication to be taken off the market. There are several hundred different drugs which are known to cause liver damage. Approximately half of all cases of acute liver failure are related to hepatotoxicity. The type of liver damage caused by medications varies widely and depends upon the type of drug being taken, the dosage, and the overall health of the patient.

The most common over-the-counter medication associated with the development of liver damage is acetaminophen. With this type of medication being so readily available, patients often take more of this medication than advised on the label. When this happens, the body is not able to get rid of the drug before it begins to cause damage. Other types of drugs which have been linked to high rates of hepatotoxicity include chemotherapy drugs and medications designed to treat HIV.

The patient who has been prescribed medications that are known to be linked to potential liver damage will likely be advised to have periodic blood tests to determine the levels of liver function. This may allow the doctor to change medications early in the course of the disease and either prevent or slow down the progression of damage to the liver.

In most cases of hepatotoxicity, the doctor will try to reduce the dosage or change the medication entirely once liver damage has been detected. Unfortunately, this is not always enough to prevent liver failure. In cases in which the liver no longer functions at an adequate level, a liver transplant is often necessary, providing that the patient's overall health is stable enough for such a major surgery. The donated liver may come from an organ donor, or in some cases, a portion of the liver can be transplanted from a living donor. Once a transplant has occurred, the patient will have to take prescription medications for life in order to prevent the body from rejecting the new organ.

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