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Fatty Liver Disease

A healthy liver contains a small amount of fat. It becomes a problem when fat reaches 5% to 10% of your liver’s weight. In most cases, fatty liver disease doesn’t cause any serious problems or prevent your liver from functioning normally. But for some people with fatty liver disease, the condition worsens over time.  

There are two main forms of fatty liver disease: 

  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD) – A person who has a fatty liver and also drinks too much alcohol may be diagnosed with alcoholic fatty liver disease. 
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) – Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease occurs in people who aren’t heavy drinkers. 

Additionally, if the fat buildup causes inflammation and damage, it is known as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which can lead to scarring of the liver. 

Causes of Fatty Liver Disease 

Alcoholic fatty liver disease is due to heavy alcohol use. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, however, has no known cause and some people get fatty liver disease without having any pre-existing conditions. There are certain risk factors that make it more likely for someone to develop fatty liver disease, including: 

  • Being obese or overweight 
  • Having Type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance 
  • Having metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high triglyceride levels) 
  • Taking certain prescription medications 

Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease 

Many people develop excess fat in the liver without ever experiencing liver damage or any symptoms. Some people with NAFLD may experience fatigue and pain in the upper right abdomen. A small percentage of people with fatty liver disease will develop NASH, but even then, it could take years for the symptoms to become noticeable. When they do, these symptoms may include: 

  • Severe fatigue and weakness 
  • Abdominal swelling 
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice) 
  • Spiderlike blood vessels on the skin 
  • Intense itching 
  • Rapid weight loss 
  • Red palms 

Diagnosis of Fatty Liver Disease 

Because fatty liver disease often has no symptoms, it can go undetected. It can first be spotted by doctors while doing routine tests and exams, especially blood work. Higher levels of liver enzymes on a blood test can be the first sign of fatty liver disease, which may lead to doctors performing additional tests such as: 

  • Imaging tests (for example, ultrasound or computed tomography (CT) scan) 
  • A physical exam 
  • A liver biopsy 

Treatment of Fatty Liver Disease 

Since there’s no specific medication for fatty liver disease, treatment options focus on controlling factors that contribute to the condition. Doctors will most likely recommend an appropriate diet and exercise program that will help someone with fatty liver disease get to or maintain a healthy weight and improve metabolism. Medication can also be prescribed to control cholesterol, blood sugar and/or triglyceride levels if needed.