What Are the Causes of Liver Failure?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 October 2019
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Liver failure occurs when damage to the organ causes it to improperly function and shut down. Acute liver failure is a sudden condition, often brought on by overdose or poisoning. Chronic liver failure is the result of a long-term, progressive degeneration, and is frequently caused by alcohol abuse, malnutrition, and cirrhosis. Other causes of liver failure include certain diseases, such as hepatitis and hemochromatosis.

Some causes of liver failure are sudden, one-time conditions that cause the organ to overload and shut down. One of the most common causes of liver failure is acetaminophen overdose, which occurs when a person takes too many over-the-counter painkillers that contain acetaminophen. Certain prescription medicines and homeopathic herbal supplements are also known to cause liver failure, and may need to be avoided by anyone with a history of liver problems. Ingesting toxic substances, such as poisonous mushrooms, can also overload the liver and is one of the most dangerous causes of liver failure.


Unlike acute liver failure, the causes of liver failure on a chronic basis may build over months, years, or even decades, due to lifestyle habits or disease. Long-term excessive alcoholism is frequently linked to chronic liver failure, as the regular overloading of the liver can lead to permanent damage. Cirrhosis, a degenerative liver disease linked to alcoholism and obesity, can also lead to liver failure, as the healthy tissue in the organ is slowly replaced by damaged and dysfunctional scar tissue. Malnutrition can deprive the liver of necessary nutrition, eroding its ability to process waste and leading to permanent tissue damage over time.

The family of viral diseases known as hepatitis is considered one of the primary causes of liver failure. Hepatitis B and C are both spread through contact with infected blood or bodily fluid, and may be transmitted through unprotected sex, sharing of hypodermic needles, through the birth canal, and rarely through infected blood transfusions. Both forms of the virus attack the liver directly, greatly increasing chances for liver disease, cancer of the liver, and liver failure. Other forms of the virus, such as hepatitis A and E, are sometimes also considered potential causes of liver failure.

One of the rarest causes of liver failure is hemochromatosis, a genetically inherited liver problem. This condition causes the liver to absorb excess iron from food. This extra iron is then stored in the liver, leading to chronic liver problems, such as cirrhosis. Symptoms of this condition may not manifest until a carrier reaches middle age, once the iron build up begins causing noticeable problems.


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