Liver Disease and Palliative Care

Understanding Liver Disease

The liver is a large organ in the body. It helps you digest food, filter out toxic substances from the blood and makes the things that thicken the blood to help form clots. When you have liver disease (cirrhosis), your normal liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue and the liver doesn’t work the way it should.

Alcoholism is the most common cause of cirrhosis. Hepatitis C is a virus that causes the liver to swell. It can damage the liver if it is not treated. Another common cause is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. This is a fat buildup in the liver. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease can be caused by diabetes, high blood cholesterol, obesity and high blood pressure.

Liver disease develops slowly over time. The parts of the liver that have scar tissue cannot work as well as they would in a healthy liver. Chronic liver failure, also called end-stage liver disease, may take from several months to many years to develop. Because of this, symptoms may not appear when the disease first starts.

The first step toward diagnosing cirrhosis of the liver is a visit to your doctor. Your doctor may order blood tests and a liver biopsy (taking a tiny piece of liver tissue through a needle to examine it under a microscope). Your doctor may also do a CT scan, MRI, ultrasound and/or endoscopy (putting a thin tube into your throat and stomach to look for abnormal conditions such as swollen veins).

Understanding Palliative Care

Palliative (pronounced “pal-lee-uh-tiv”) care is specialized medical care for people with serious illness. It focuses on providing you with relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness like liver disease. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers and other specialists who work together with your other doctors to give you an extra layer of support.

You can have palliative care at any age and at any stage of your illness. You can also have it together with curative treatment.

Liver Disease Symptoms and Treatment—How Palliative Care Can Help

Liver failure signs and symptoms include fatigue (feeling weak or tired), jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes), swelling of the legs and abdomen, appetite loss and weight loss, nausea, itchy skin and hiccups.

Fluids that build up in your body can be treated with medications and nondrug treatments. Your palliative care team will know the right medicines to give you to help relieve common symptoms such as shortness of breath, itchy skin, nausea and hiccups.

Over time, cirrhosis can get worse, and your liver may no longer work properly. This chronic liver failure is called end-stage liver disease, when symptoms may become more severe. Your  palliative care team will help you and your family to deal with these symptoms.

If you’re eligible for a liver transplant, you can turn to palliative care for symptom control and emotional support before, during and after surgery. Your palliative care team will work alongside your doctor and transplant team to support you and your family every step of the way.

Although the palliative care team can be brought in at any time after diagnosis, the earlier the better. The team will treat your symptoms, explain your treatment choices and help you to match those options to your personal goals. The team specialists will also help you better understand your condition and what to expect. They always work in partnership with your other doctors.

Palliative care specialists help you and your family to cope with the burdens of liver disease, the painful side effects of medical treatment and family caregiver stress.

Your palliative care team can help you with all this and more. Your team will be your sounding board and your first line of defense against any symptoms of pain, discomfort, depression or anxiety.

The team of specialists will help you and your loved ones to make both large and small decisions. They will enhance communication between you, your family and your other doctors, and help you to clarify your goals for care.

These are some of the many benefits of palliative care.

How to Get Palliative Care

If you or a loved one needs palliative care, ask your doctor for a referral.

Finding a hospital with a palliative care team in your area is easy. Just go to for a state-by-state list. To find out if palliative care is right for you, take our quiz.

For more information on liver disease prevention and treatment, or to find support and resources for liver disease patients and their families, visit the American Liver Foundation at