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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
  • 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.