Signs of Fatty Liver

By Sherry Baker @YourCareE
January 15, 2024
Signs of Fatty Liver

Benign and serious types of fatty liver disease affect millions of Americans. Learn signs of fatty liver you may notice — and signs only a doctor can spot.

Your liver is one of the largest organs in your body, and it’s crucial for good health. Your liver helps digest food and distribute nutrients in your body. It also helps protect you from toxic substances, processing and converting them into less harmless substances.

Although many liver diseases and conditions can damage your liver, symptoms may not be obvious for some time. The buildup of excess fat in the liver is a case in point. Depending on the cause and type of fatty liver disease, signs of fatty liver can vary, and so can the consequences.


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Alcohol-related fatty liver

Also called steatosis, fatty liver is the most common liver disorder caused by the heavy drinking of alcohol. As excess fat accumulates in the liver, it becomes more difficult for it to function normally.

You may have no symptoms in the early stages, but signs of fatty liver from alcohol can include upper abdominal pain or discomfort from an enlarged liver. Liver function tests can discover the condition.

If excess drinking continues, this form of fatty liver disease can lead to serious and even deadly problems, including cirrhosis (when scar tissue replaces normal liver tissue). The condition can be reverse, however, it it’s spotted early and you stop drinking.

Non-alcohol signs of fatty liver NAFLD and NASH?

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is one of the most common forms of liver disease in the U.S. In fact, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) points out as many as 30 to 40 percent of American adults have the condition. Metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions including excess fat around the waist, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol or triglyceride levels), obesity, and type 2 diabetes are all linked to the buildup of fat in the liver.

Simple fatty liver is the most benign form of NAFLD. In this condition, you have fat in your liver but little or no liver damage. The condition rarely progresses or causes complications.

About 20 percent of people with fatty liver disease, however, have the more serious form of NAFLD liver — nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). In NASH, there’s not only a buildup of not only fat in the liver but also inflammation, which can cause scarring and may lead to cirrhosis and even liver cancer.

There may be no obvious signs of fatty liver, but some people experience symptoms, including fatigue and feeling discomfort in the upper right side of their abdomen.

Signs of fatty liver on a physical exam

Your doctor may note these indications of fatty liver disease during a check-up:

  • An enlarged liver
  • Signs of insulin resistance, including darkened patches of skin on knuckles knees and elbows
  • Jaundice (a yellowing of skin and whites of eyes which may indicate NASH)
  • Blood tests showing increase levels of liver enzymes, especially aspartate aminotransferase (AST) and alanine aminotransferase (ALT)

If you have symptoms of fatty liver, your doctor will likely order imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI to document the amount of fat in your liver.

The tests can’t show inflammation or fibrosis (the early stages of scarring), so they can’t distinguish whether you have simple fatty liver or NASH. If you have cirrhosis however, imaging can show lumps. If your doctor suspects NASH, you may need a liver biopsy.

If you are diagnosed with NASH or NAFLD, the recommended treatment is weight loss, according to the NIDDK. Losing a minimum of three to five percent of your body weight can reduce fat in your liver and reduce inflammation and scarring.


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January 15, 2024

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN