The liver is a very misunderstood organ. On this page, we tackle some common myths.
Myth: Liver disease is rare in Australia.
Fact: Liver disease is common and affects more than 1 in 3 of all Australians. It causes tens of thousands of days lost to ill health and is a leading cause of death. The Liver Foundation’s report into liver cancer found it’s the seventh most common cause of cancer death in Australia.
Myth: I can only get liver disease if I drink alcohol excessively or use intravenous drugs.
Fact: You can be born with liver disease, contract it from a virus, develop an autoimmune form of liver disease, develop it from what you eat and drink, be exposed to various toxins, or get it for unknown reasons. Alcohol only causes 1 out of more than 100 different types of liver disease. In Australia, Metabolic Associated Fatty Liver Disease (MAFLD) is the most common liver disease, affecting more than 5 million people. Once you have liver disease or liver damage, it is recommended that you stop drinking alcohol and follow the advice of your healthcare team to give your liver the best chance of recovery.
Myth: Liver disease only affects old people.
Fact: Even tiny babies can get liver disease. Paediatric liver specialists in Australia see hundreds of children – from newborns to teens – who suffer from various forms of liver disease. The major causes of liver disease in children are inherited (e.g Wilson’s Disease, alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency, tyrosinemia), viruses (e.g. hepatitis A, B, C), and blockages in the flow of bile from the liver (e.g. biliary atresia, Alagille syndrome).
Myth: I would have noticed something was wrong if I had liver disease. I would feel sick.
Fact: You can have liver disease and not know it because the symptoms can be vague and easily confused with other health problems. Many people with liver disease have no symptoms at all, but the liver may already have suffered significant damage.
If you do experience symptoms, they could take the form of fatigue, nausea, itching, dark urine or yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice).
Myth: Yellowing of the skin and of the whites of the eyes (jaundice) in babies is very common and should not be a cause for concern.
Fact: Jaundice can be an early warning sign of liver disease. Many babies have “newborn jaundice” lasting 3 to 5 days after birth because their liver is not yet fully developed. But if their jaundice does not clear up after 14 days of life, they have dark urine and/or pale poos, an enlarged tummy or vomiting, your baby should be seen by a doctor immediately.
Myth: Cirrhosis is caused by heavy drinking.
Fact: It is true that heavy drinking damages the liver and can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver).
But cirrhosis can happen when any form of liver disease reaches an advanced stage. It is not only related to alcohol. Causes of cirrhosis include:
- viral infections caused by chronic viral hepatitis (types B and C)
- autoimmune conditions such as autoimmune hepatitis, primary biliary cholangitis or primary sclerosing cholangitis
- inherited diseases such as Wilson’s Disease and hemochromatosis, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, galactosemia and glycogen storage disorders
- biliary cirrhosis resulting from diseases such as primary biliary cholangitis (PBC) and primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC)
- toxic hepatitis caused by severe reactions to prescription or over-the-counter medicines or prolonged exposure to environmental toxins
- a heart condition such as congestive heart failure
- long-term unhealthy alcohol use
Myth: Dementia symptoms are only caused by Alzheimer’s and only affect elderly people.
Fact: When your liver starts to fail, toxins can build up in your brain causing a condition called hepatic encephalopathy (HE). HE causes confusion and affects brain function. This can happen when people have acute liver failure or chronic liver disease.
HE symptoms include trouble sleeping at night, difficulty thinking clearly, poor concentration, anxiety, mental fogginess, confusion, disorientation, reduced consciousness or even coma.
HE symptoms can be treated.
Myth: A liver cleanse is all I need to get my liver back in shape.
Fact: Despite the promise of a newer, healthier you from well-marketed products and programs that are meant to cleanse your digestive system, the liver does not need to be cleansed – it does that job itself. If you have liver damage, there are lifestyle changes and treatments that can reverse much of the damage. But you need to keep these up over time.
Liver cleansing diets can be harmful as they do not provide all the nutrients you need, or may expose your liver to harmful substances. They also don’t work to repair liver damage.
Myth: If I have regular annual check-ups, my doctor will tell me if I have or am at risk for developing liver disease.
Fact: Basic liver tests may not be part of annual check-ups requested by your GP. Your GP may not run these tests unless they suspect a possible liver issue.
It is important to discuss any risks for liver disease with your doctor, such as family history, unhealthy drinking, poor diet, diabetes, or if you might have been exposed to a virus in your blood.
Myth: I cannot take paracetamol tablets if I have a liver condition
Fact: One or two 500mg tablets of paracetamol, up to 3 or 4 times in 24 hours is generally safe even in people with advanced liver disease. Doses higher than this can lead to liver failure even in people with healthy livers.
AIHW. Australian Burden of Disease Study: Impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2018. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/burden-of-disease/abds-impact-and-causes-of-illness-and-death-in-aus/summary
Reviewed November 2022