How to love your liver

According to the British Liver Trust, more than one in five people is at risk of developing liver disease. But a new study published in the Lancet suggests that while more than 60,000 adults in the UK have cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, almost three quarters of them don’t realise it.

“Liver disease develops silently with no signs or symptoms and is the second leading cause of years or working life lost,” says Professor Nick Sheron, a liver expert from the University of Southampton who was involved in the study.

“If current trends continue it will become the leading cause of premature mortality in the UK. Yet, most people with fatal advanced liver disease only become aware that they have a liver problem when they are admitted as an emergency.”

But it’s not all bad news. The British Liver Trust suggests around 90 per cent of cases of liver disease are entirely preventable, with the major risk factors including alcohol, obesity and viral hepatitis. The charity suggests three simple steps to keep your liver healthy:

  • Drink within recommended limits and have three consecutive alcohol-free days every week. The UK Chief Medical Officers’ current guidelines say it’s safest not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week on a regular basis.
  • Cut down on sugar, carbohydrates and fat, and take more exercise.
  • Know the risk factors for viral hepatitis and get tested or vaccinated if at risk.

What is viral hepatitis?

Hepatitis is the term used for inflammation of the liver. This can happen as a result of a viral infection, but you can also develop hepatitis by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol over many years.

The most common forms of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, B and C:

Hepatitis A The virus that causes hepatitis A can be passed from person to person through poor hygiene causing contaminated food. But it isn’t usually long lasting and you should feel better within a few weeks or months (symptoms include feeling tired, nausea, aches and pains, sore throat, a mild fever and an itchy rash). If you’re travelling abroad outside Europe and the US, you may be advised to have a hepatitis A vaccination.

Hepatitis B and C Both types are caused by viruses that are spread through the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis B is uncommon in the UK, but there is a vaccination for those in high risk groups, including healthcare workers and people travelling to parts of the world where the infection is more common. Not everyone with hepatitis B develops symptoms, some of which are similar to those of hepatitis A.

There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C, however. This type of viral hepatitis is commonly spread through sharing needles to inject drugs. According to the NHS it often causes no noticeable symptoms or only flu-like symptoms, which is why so many people don’t know they have the virus. If you have chronic hepatitis C, it can be treated with antiviral medicines.

To find out if you’re at risk of liver disease, try the British Liver Trust’s health screener.

If you’re worried about any symptoms you’re experiencing, your local Careway pharmacist can advise you about whether you need to see your GP. Find your nearest Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.