What is Liver Failure?

Liver failure is severe deterioration of liver function. Liver failure occurs when a large portion of the liver is damaged due to any type of liver disorder and the liver cannot perform its vital functions in the body, such as producing chemicals and filtering blood. There are two common types of liver failure:

  • Acute Liver Failure: when liver failure results from a sudden illness in a person with no history of liver disease.
  • Chronic Liver Failure: when liver failure occurs at the end of a long-standing liver disease. Chronic liver failure is linked to severe scarring of the liver, which is called cirrhosis.

For more information or to request an appointment with a physician at St. Louis Children's Hospital, call 314.454.5437 or 800.678.5437 or email us.

Causes of Liver Failure

There are several potential causes for liver failure including metabolic conditions, infections or viruses, cardiovascular conditions or consumption of drugs or toxins. It can come on suddenly -- for example, after poisoning with certain chemicals, herbs or even some medicines. It can be the result of a longer-term disease or defect, such as hepatitis or biliary atresia.

    Liver Failure Signs and Symptoms

    In general, one of the first signs of a problem with your child's liver is jaundice. Jaundice happens when the liver is unable to remove bilirubin, a yellow pigment, from the blood. This gives a yellow color to a child's skin and the whites of the eyes.

    Many healthy babies have mild jaundice, especially during the first week or two of life. This normal type of jaundice usually goes away by the time your child is about 2 weeks old. If jaundice gets worse, take your baby to the doctor to check for a possible liver problem.

    Other symptoms of liver failure may include:

    • Tendency to bruise or bleed easily
    • Ascites: a fluid buildup in the abdominal cavity
    • Impaired brain function (trouble thinking)
    • Generally feeling ill
    • Fatigue
    • Weakness
    • Nausea
    • Loss of appetite
    • Diarrhea

    If your child is experiencing any of these signs and symptoms, call St. Louis Children's Hospital at 314.454.5437 or 800.678.5437 or email us to request an appointment with a doctor.

    Diagnosis of Liver Failure

    Liver failure can be difficult to diagnose early on because it is rare and symptoms look like other illnesses. Lab studies and a physical exam can tell whether there is evidence of a liver problem. This includes signs of mental confusion (encephalopathy), levels of liver enzymes that increase very quickly, jaundice and coagulopathy (problem with blood clotting).

    If there seems to be a liver problem, the child should be seen by doctor. The doctor there will determine the appropriate treatment plan for the patient's cause of liver failure. To request an appointment with a doctor, call St. Louis Children's Hospital at 314.454.5437 or 800.678.5437 or email us.

    Treatment of Liver Failure

    Treatment for liver failure depends on what caused the disease. Some causes are treatable by either medicine or a liver transplant.

    • Monitoring: There are some patients who will get better by themselves if they receive treatment for their symptoms. Many patients whose condition is caused by a virus get better on their own. Their liver is able to reform itself into a healthy organ.
    • Medication: When the liver failure is caused by a cardiovascular condition or by acetaminophen, it sometimes can be treated with medicine. Medicine may be able to reverse the condition if given early enough.
    • Transplant: Approximately half of all children with liver failure need a liver transplant. For the majority of patients whose cause of liver failure is not known, a transplant is the only option.

    To request an appointment with a physician at St. Louis Children's Hospital, call 314.454.5437 or 800.678.5437 or email us. For additional resources about liver failure, contact our Center for Families Resource Library.