Fatty liver is the collection of excessive amounts of fat inside liver cells. The liver is the largest organ within the body and performs many important functions. One of those functions is to change substances in the foods that we eat into proteins, fats and carbohydrates. One form of fat that the liver produces is called triglycerides, which are important for new cell production for making hormones such as estrogen, testosterone and the adrenal hormones. In cases of fatty liver, the liver cells accumulate large droplets of fat that consist of mostly triglycerides.
In the United States, the most common cause of fatty liver is alcohol abuse, this form being called alcoholic steatosis. All other forms are called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and are caused by conditions including malnutrition (poor diet), obesity, diabetes mellitus, and Reye's syndrome in children. There is a rare, but serious, form of fatty liver that begins late in pregnancy and may cause jaundice and liver failure. Fatty liver may also be caused by certain drug overdoses or toxic chemical poisonings, such as carbon tetrachloride. All these causes injure the liver in some way that makes the liver cells accumulate fats.
Fatty liver usually produces no symptoms. In rare cases, it causes jaundice, right-side abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, and fever. Women with pregnancy-related fatty liver may experience nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and abdominal pain. It may also cause a condition known as pre-eclampsia or eclampsia, which is characterized by dangerously high blood pressure, swelling and seizures.
The liver may be tender when the abdomen is pressed. An enlarged liver without any other symptoms usually suggests fatty liver. Your doctor can confirm the diagnosis with blood tests for liver function, and by performing a liver biopsy. With a biopsy, the doctor uses a long, hollow needle to remove a small sample of liver tissue for examination under a microscope. An ultrasound or abdominal CT scan may also be performed to evaluate your liver.
Treatment for fatty liver is aimed at eliminating or treating the cause of the condition. Pregnancy-related fatty liver is treated by delivering the baby, if viable. In cases of malnutrition, the goal is to develop a healthy diet, sometimes with the aid of vitamin and mineral supplements.
You can prevent fatty liver by maintaining a well-balanced diet and limiting alcohol consumption. Good prenatal care will help to recognize the symptoms of fatty liver in pregnant women before the condition becomes serious. To prevent Reye's syndrome, children should never be given aspirin to treat colds and viruses.
In many cases, fatty liver is reversible if caught early in its development.
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