Liver Failure & Signs & Symptoms

Updated April 17, 2017

Liver failure occurs when the liver loses the ability to function. The Mayo Clinic reports that liver failure can come on slowly over several years or it can occur quickly, and the patient will only have days or hours to get help. Knowing what the symptoms of liver failure are can be critical to getting immediate medical help when symptoms first occur.


Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin caused by an increase in bilirubin, which the liver normally removes from the red blood cells. Jaundice is one of the most commonly-noticed symptoms of liver failure. It is considered a telltale sign that the liver is not functioning properly and a person should get immediate medical assistance.

Liver Encephalopathy

As the liver fails to function properly, toxins will build up in the body and cause disorientation or confusion. This problem is commonly referred to as liver encephalopathy. It is a very serious symptom of liver failure and usually occurs when the patient is in acute liver failure. It can be marked by a decline or change in thinking, confusion, sluggish speech and even coma. Mental changes in liver failure patients are sometimes treated by prescribing Lactulose for the patient.

Portal Hypertension

The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that portal hypertension is an abnormally high blood pressure within the portal vein. This is a serious and potentially deadly symptom of liver failure. Portal hypertension occurs when the liver becomes unable to perform its job and becomes resistant to blood flow. Due to this resistance, the liver is not able to remove impurities in the blood which back up in the portal vein. Portal hypertension usually occurs in combination with a distended abdomen or bleeding in varicose veins.

Abdominal Symptoms

Patients with liver failure commonly suffer from pain and bloating in the upper abdomen. This pain can be caused by the enlargement of the liver or because of the build-up of fluid. Fluids that normally pass through the liver back up into surrounding tissues. The abdomen will become so swollen by these fluids that the skin becomes taut. Patients may also get a swollen liver, which can cause the abdomen to become painful to the touch.


Feeling exhausted is a common problem when the liver begins to fail. Fatigue and exhaustion can occur any time of day, but for some liver patients, it occurs first thing in the morning. Fatigue can be caused by a loss of blood due to internal bleeding, loss of iron or even an increase in iron. It is a very serious symptom of liver failure and will continue to worsen as the disease advances.

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About the Author

Kristie Jernigan is a health writer with over 17 years of experience as a medical social worker. She has worked mainly with the elderly population and with children. She holds a Bachelor of Science in psychology and early childhood from East Tennessee State University and a Master of Science in health care administration and gerontology from the University of Phoenix.