Causes and Risk Factors of Liver Disease

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Your liver is one of the largest organs in your body. It plays the important role of removing toxins from your body. It also helps you digest food and stores sugar that the body will later use for energy.

There are many different types of liver disease, including cirrhosis, hepatitis, and cancer. The causes include genetic risk factors; exposure to toxins, including drugs and alcohol; and other health factors.

This article discusses the causes of liver disease and the risk factors that might increase your chances of developing liver disease. 

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Alona Siniehina / Getty Images

Genetics

Scientists are still working to understand exactly how genes play a role in liver disease. However, it seems that genetics explain why some people develop liver disease and other people don’t, even when they have or don't have other risk factors. 

If you have a parent or sibling who has genetic liver disease, talk to your healthcare provider. You may want to avoid alcohol and get an annual liver enzyme test to check the health of your liver.

Hemochromatosis

Hereditary hemochromatosis is a condition that causes the body to build up too much iron, which is toxic to the liver. Hemochromatosis is linked to changes in the HFE gene. If you inherit an affected gene from each of your parents, you will have hereditary hemochromatosis. 

The rates of hereditary hemochromatosis are highest among Whites, where about 1 in 300 people have the disease. Many people don’t know they have hereditary hemochromatosis, but about 1 in 10 men with the condition will develop severe liver disease. If you have a family history of liver disease, you can talk to your healthcare provider about genetic testing that could tell you whether you have hereditary hemochromatosis. 

Wilson's Disease

Wilson's disease is a genetic condition that causes copper to build up in the body. That in turn can lead to liver diseases like hepatitis and cirrhosis. Wilson's disease is very rare, affecting 1 in 30,000 people. However, if you have a family history of the illness you should talk to your healthcare team about your risk. 

Alpha-1-Antitrypsin Deficiency

Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, or AAT deficiency, occurs when people don’t have an important protein. The absence of the protein can affect liver function and lead to liver disease as well as lung diseases including emphysema. 

Other Genetic Liver Diseases

Genetics are a risk factor even for liver diseases that have environmental causes. For example, researchers believe that some heavy drinkers are genetically predisposed to liver disease, while others are not.

Lifestyle Risk Factors

Lifestyle factors play a large role in liver disease. The following lifestyle risk factors can become causes of liver disease, especially if you’re already genetically predisposed to liver disease. 

Alcohol Use

The liver breaks down alcohol. But when you drink more than it can process, alcohol begins to damage the liver. This leads to fatty liver disease, where fat builds up in the liver, causing it to become inflamed. Eventually, fatty liver disease can lead to cirrhosis. In fact, alcohol use is the leading cause of cirrhosis. The more you drink and the longer amount of time you use alcohol, the higher your risk for liver disease. 

Alcohol use can cause liver diseases including:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis: inflammation of the liver
  • Cirrhosis: scarring of the liver
  • Liver cancer

Just four drinks a day for males and two drinks a day for females can increase your risk of liver disease.

Exposure to Toxins

Just like the liver has to clear away alcohol, it clears away other toxins from your body. But when you’re exposed to high levels of toxins like pesticides, they can damage your liver and cause liver disease. To reduce your exposure to toxins:

  • Avoid or wear gloves when handling household cleaners with chemicals
  • Wash fruits and vegetables to remove pesticides. Consider whether buying organic is right for you and your family. 
  • Use a mask to avoid breathing in fumes like paint or acetone.

Supplements

While most people who take supplements do so in hopes of improving their health, taking too many supplements can increase your risk of liver disease. Up to 20% of liver injuries are caused by supplements, so don’t think you’re in the clear just because what you’re taking is all natural. Talk to your healthcare provider about all supplements that you’re taking, and never take more than the recommended dose.

Obesity

Having an unhealthy weight can increase your risk for health conditions, including diabetes and high cholesterol. These in turn increase your risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. With this condition, fats build up in the liver, increasing your risk of cirrhosis and cancer. It’s very common, affecting 20% to 40% of the population in the United States.

If you are concerned about your weight and have other risk factors like diabetes or high cholesterol, talk to your healthcare provider about your liver health and whether having an annual liver enzyme test is right for you. 

If you have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, you may be able to reverse the condition with dietary changes like decreasing your intake of processed foods and increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables, and proteins. 

Viruses

Hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver, can be caused by viruses. Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B are viral strains that can cause hepatitis. They can be passed through sharing needles or having unprotected sex. Practicing safe sex, avoiding drugs, and getting vaccinated can reduce your risk of hepatitis. 

Summary

Liver disease is a growing problem facing Americans. Some people are at increased risk for liver disease because of their genetics. Other causes of liver disease include drinking too much, health conditions like diabetes, and taking too many supplements. If you are concerned about your liver health or if you have a parent or sibling with liver disease, talk with your healthcare provider. Early intervention can help reverse liver disease. 

A Word From Verywell

Liver disease is progressive and very serious. It can be scary to learn that you’re at risk for liver disease. However, knowing your risk factors can also be empowering. Take charge of your liver health by getting an annual enzyme test, reducing your alcohol intake, and eating more fruits and vegetables. Work closely with your healthcare provider to determine how you can reduce or reverse your risk of serious liver disease. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is liver disease genetic?

    Yes, researchers believe there’s a strong genetic component to liver disease. However, lifestyle factors including how much you drink also play an important role in liver disease. 

  • Is liver disease caused by alcohol?

    Alcohol intake is one cause of liver disease. However, it’s possible to develop liver disease even if you don’t drink.

  • What are the first signs of liver disease?

    Swelling of the liver is one of the first signs of liver disease. It can cause pain in the upper right abdomen. You may notice other signs, including jaundice, nausea, and bloating.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Liver Diseases.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. 5 reasons you may be at risk for liver disease.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hereditary hemochromatosis.

  4. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Liver disease.

  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Alcoholic liver disease.

  6. American Cancer Society. Liver cancer risk factors.

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.