Liver Failure | Symptoms & Causes

What causes acute liver failure?

In many cases, doctors are unable to determine the cause of acute liver failure.

When the cause is known, the most common cause is taking too much acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol and other cold medications. Acetaminophen can damage the liver after one large dose or after a child takes more than the recommended dose for several days in a row.

Other prescription medications and even some herbal supplements, such as kava, ephedra, skullcap and pennyroyal, can also cause acute liver failure.

In a small number of cases, acute liver failure is caused by a viral infection such as herpes simplex or Epstein Barr.

What causes chronic liver failure?

Chronic liver failure occurs when a long-term illness damages the liver. The following liver conditions can lead to chronic liver failure:

  • biliary atresia, when a child is born with blocked or damaged bile duct, the tube that bile, fluid produced by the liver, flows through on its way to the intestines
  • metabolic liver diseases like Wilson disease in which the body is unable to process copper from food and the copper builds up in the liver.
  • chronic viral hepatitis C which causes the liver to swell and encourages scar tissue to form

What are the symptoms of liver failure?

Jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes, it is usually the first and sometimes the only sign of liver disease. Other symptoms include:

  • confusion or disorientation
  • pain or tenderness in the upper right abdomen
  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dark urine
  • easy bleeding
  • itching
  • small, spider-like vessels visible in the skin
  • chills

What are the complications of liver failure?

Liver failure may cause:

  • Liver encephalopathy: a drop in brain function caused by the buildup of toxic substances in the blood
  • Jaundice: a yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of your child's eyes due to an abnormally high level of bilirubin (bile pigment) in the bloodstream
  • Coagulopathy: a bleeding disorder that happens when blood does not clot and can result in excessing bleeding from even a small cut
  • Portal hypertensionabnormally high blood pressure in the vein that brings blood from the intestine to the liver (the portal vein), that can cause a distended abdominal cavity (ascites), prominence of abdominal wall veins, or bleeding of the varicose veins at the lower end of the esophagus or the stomach lining
  • Ascites: the build up of fluid in the abdominal cavity caused by fluid leaks from the vessels on the surface of the liver and intestine that can make a child feel short of breath
  • Hepatomegaly: an enlarged liver that may cause abdominal pain or a feeling of fullness