Swollen liver is a commonly used term for a liver that has grown to an abnormal size. It can also be called an enlarged liver. The medical term is hepatomegaly. A swollen liver is not considered to be a disease, but is rather a symptom of some underlying disorder like cirrhosis, hepatitis, fatty liver disease or cancer.
Typically, there are no swollen liver symptoms until the disease or condition that causes swelling reaches a serious stage. By then, significant liver damage has probably occurred. If symptoms are ignored or left untreated at this point, liver failure could eventually become a reality. Liver failure is fatal without a liver transplant.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below, tell your doctor about them right away. He or she alone is qualified to make a diagnosis. The information presented here is intended solely to give you a basic and introductory knowledge of the symptoms of liver swelling so you can discuss them with your doctor.
Once again, if the liver is only slightly swollen, there are likely to be no symptoms whatsoever. But if the liver is grossly swollen, several symptoms may appear that point to liver trouble.
Jaundice is the most prominent of these. Jaundice occurs because of an abnormal build up of a bile pigment known as bilirubin in the blood. This accumulation of bilirubin causes the skin and the whites of the eyes to look yellow.
Senses of sight and smell may be heightened when you have a swollen liver. Smells that never bothered you before can suddenly become unpleasant – even offensive. Patients with liver problems often report especially strong reactions to certain chemical smells like household cleaners and insecticides.
Another swollen liver symptom that doesn’t typically occur with other diseases is a distressing sensitivity to light. This is known as photophobia. It should be noted that unlike many other phobias, photophobia isn’t a fear of light so much as it is a physical reaction to light that hurts the eyes. Photophobia can be a symptom of other problems, but when combined with other signs of liver swelling, it often helps confirm a diagnosis.
Someone with a swollen liver is also likely to experience occasional, even frequent feelings of fullness in the lower stomach and upper abdominal areas. This can happen even though the patient eats very little, and in fact, has an unusual lack of interest in food and eating. A reduced appetite is a common sign of liver swelling.
Painful muscles and joints are typical too. Someone who is getting older could easily mistake these symptoms for the onset of arthritis.
There are likely to be noticeable changes in bowel movements. When you have a swollen liver, you may experience bouts of either diarrhea or constipation. The color of your urine will also probably change, becoming dark or cloudy.
If you have a persistent cough even though you have no symptoms of a respiratory infection or allergies, it could be a symptom of a swollen liver. Keep in mind however, that if you’re taking a blood pressure medication you may have a mild but persistent cough as a side effect. Fatigue and a feeling of constant weariness are symptoms of liver swelling too. These may sometimes be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and an occasional fever.
Certain liver disorders or conditions are considered to be signs of a swollen liver. They include:
- cholestasis, a condition that occurs when bile flowing from the liver is obstructed,
- portal hypertension, or high blood pressure in the portal vein, which transports blood between the intestines and the liver,
- ascites, which is an accumulation of fluids in the abdominal area, and
- liver encephalopathy, which causes reduced brain function due to an accumulation of toxic substances in the body that are normally removed by the liver.
If you have a swollen liver that’s in the early stages, the only way to tell is through testing. Your doctor can suggest liver function tests that can liver swelling long before any physical symptoms appear. Such tests can be a valuable tool for ensuring that your liver is healthy – and a signal that you need to make some lifestyle changes or get treatment if it is not.