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Liver transplantation

Liver transplantation

What is a liver transplant? 
A liver transplant is an operation where your diseased liver is removed and replaced with a healthy donor human liver. Although liver transplants are now quite common, the operation is not undertaken lightly. It is a major operation and the body will always see the ‘new’ liver as a foreign agent and will try to destroy it. This means that if you have a liver transplant you will have to take medication for the rest of your life to stop your body rejecting the donor liver.

Why do I need a liver transplant?
You may need a liver transplant if your liver is damaged to the point where it is unable to repair itself and is likely to fail completely. Your doctor may advise you to have a transplant when it is thought this will either dramatically improve your quality of life or that, without a transplant, you will die.

The main causes of severe liver damage that lead to people needing a transplant are:

  • cirrhosis
  • hepatitis
  • metabolic conditions (problems with the physical and chemical processes that take place inside your liver to keep you alive)
  • paracetamol poisoning

How will I benefit from a transplant?
By the time you discover you need a transplant your liver might begin to fail and your quality of life may be very poor. You may have experienced the following symptoms:

  • loss of appetite
  • generally feeling unwell and being tired
    all the time
  • feeling sick and being sick
  • very itchy skin
  • loss of weight and muscle wasting
  • enlarged and tender liver (you may feel very
    tender below your right ribs)
  • increased sensitivity to alcohol and drugs
    (medical and recreational)
  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
    (jaundice)
  • swelling of the lower abdomen, or tummy
    (ascites), or the legs (peripheral oedema)
  • fever with high temperatures and shivers, often caused by an infection
  • vomiting blood
  • dark black tarry stools (faeces) or pale stools, associated with cholestatic disease
  • periods of mental confusion.

Having a liver transplant is a major undertaking but can lead to a resolution for these symptoms and, if successful, you should have an average life expectancy.


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Last Updated June 2007
Reviewed by:
Professor Nigel Heaton, MB BS FRCS Professor of Liver Transplantation, Kings College, London.

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Pat’s Story

Pat Gilbert has been through the trauma of two liver transplants. Within three weeks of receiving her first liver transplant her body rejected it. Another donor was found with an hour to spare, and was successfully …

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