Liver Disease and Pregnancy

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The liver is an important part of the human digestive system. It is a wedge-shaped organ that is located below the diaphragm, in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. It is a large organ, with a width of about 6 inches and a weight of about 3 pounds.

The liver has hundreds of different functions, including producing hormones and chemicals necessary for growth and digestion, filtering and detoxifying various metabolites in the body, regulating the storage of glycogen for energy, destroying old red blood cells, and producing bile to breakdown fats. With all these important roles, it is important for the liver to stay healthy and well-functioning. If liver disease or dysfunction occur, it can impact almost every organ and system in the body. If left untreated, liver disease can progress to liver failure, which is a life-threatening condition.

Causes of liver disease

The liver can be harmed by viral infections such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C; parasitic infections; autoimmune diseases; exposure to drugs, poisons, or alcohol; cancer; and inherited disorders.

Risk factors for liver disease include excessive alcohol use, obesity, type 2 diabetes, tattoos or body piercings, intravenous drug use, exposure to other people’s body fluids, unprotected sex, a blood transfusion received before 1992, and a family history of liver disease.

Symptoms of liver disease

Most cases of liver disease, regardless of the cause, will present with similar symptoms:

  • Pale-colored stool
  • Dark urine
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Swelling of the abdomen, legs, ankles, and feet
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Easy bruising and bleeding
  • Pain near the location of the liver

Roughly 3% of women are affected by some type of liver disease during pregnancy. Liver disease can occur during pregnancy due to a pre-existing or underlying health issue or due to the pregnancy itself.

Diagnosis of liver disease

Liver disease is diagnosed using blood tests to evaluate the function of the liver. A physical examination of the liver, as well as imaging tests such as an ultrasound or a CT scan, may also be used. A liver biopsy may be needed for further evaluation.

Pregnancy-specific liver disease

Roughly 3% of women are affected by some type of liver disease during pregnancy. Liver disease can occur during pregnancy due to a pre-existing or underlying health issue or due to the pregnancy itself. Regardless of the cause, liver disease during pregnancy can cause harm to the mother and baby.

Liver diseases that are specific to pregnancy include:

Common liver diseases that are not uniquely specific to pregnancy include cirrhosis and portal hypertension, chronic hepatitis B and C, autoimmune disease of the liver, and drug-induced hepatitis.

Liver disease during pregnancy can cause premature birth, stillbirth, and heavy bleeding after birth.

Keeping the liver healthy

Every food, drink, and medicine that goes into your body passes through your liver, so pay attention to what you put in your body.

The best way to prevent liver disease is to lead a healthy, active lifestyle:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Stay hydrated
  • Get plenty of exercise
  • Avoid exposure to toxins as much as possible
  • Use alcohol in moderation (and not at all while you’re pregnant)
  • Avoid the use of illicit drugs
  • Don’t use dirty needles for injecting medications, body piercings, tattooing, or any other reason
  • Seek medical care if you are exposed to or come in contact with someone else’s blood
  • Don’t share personal hygiene items such as razors, nail clippers, or toothbrushes
  • Practice safe sex to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like hepatitis B and C
  • Wash your hands often
  • Follow the directions on all over-the-counter and prescription medications
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist for information on herbal and dietary supplements, as some of these can harm your liver
  • Stay up-to-date on vaccines, including those for hepatitis A and B

Liver disease during pregnancy is complex and challenging to treat. If you already have liver disease, speak to your doctor before getting pregnant to make sure that you manage your condition to keep yourself and your baby safe and healthy.

Jennifer Gibson
Dr. Jennifer Gibson earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry from Clemson University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the Medical College of Virginia School of Pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University. She trained as a hospital pharmacist and is the author of clinical textbooks, peer-reviewed journal articles, and continuing education programs for the medical community, as well as a contributor to award-winning healthcare blogs and websites. In her free time, she enjoys running, reading, traveling, and spending time with her family.

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