4 Ways Your Eyes Are Telling You That Your Liver's in Trouble
These symptoms could mean it's time for a trip to your doctor's office.
Your eyes let you see the world around you, but in some cases, they may provide a glimpse into what's going on internally, as well. Problems with your eyes could be your body's way of signaling you that should get your liver checked. According to the American Liver Foundation, a staggering 5.5 million Americans live with chronic liver disease, and another 4.4 million suffer from hepatitis B or C. Unfortunately, many people don't realize there's a problem with their liver. As a result, serious health conditions go undiagnosed and untreated. Read on to learn what symptoms to look for in your eyes, what they mean, and when to see a doctor about your liver.
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Plaque build-up on your eyelids
Yellowish plaque accumulation on your eyelids or below the eyes might not be normal morning sleep crust: In some instances, it can indicate primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC), an autoimmune disease of the liver. A common symptom of PBC is xanthelasma—a collection of cholesterol deposits that appear in the skin around the eyes. Other symptoms of PBC include yellowing of the eyes, itching, and fatigue. If left untreated, this condition can lead to cirrhosis (liver scarring), gastrointestinal bleeding, and liver failure.
"Xanthelasma is caused by increased lipids (fats), a sign of fatty liver disease that can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer," explains Liudmila Schafer, MD, FACP, a medical oncologist and the founder of The Doctor Connect. "[The plaque collections] themselves are harmless, but can be a sign of cardiovascular or autoimmune disease, and that is why you need to see a doctor right away if you experience this symptom."
The primary treatment for PBC is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which can help prevent or delay liver damage if taken in the early stages of PBC. Preventive measures you can take against PBC and the development of xanthelasma include maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco, and reducing or eliminating alcohol intake.
Dry, itchy eyes are more than an uncomfortable nuisance—they may be a sign of dry eye disease (DED), which is linked to liver sarcoidosis. Sarcoidosis is characterized by enlargement of the liver and can potentially lead to cirrhosis. In addition, sarcoidosis may cause dry, itchy eyes, impaired vision, swelling of the tear glands, and in rare cases, blindness.
"Dry eyes are associated with liver diseases, such as chronic hepatitis C infection and PBC," states board-certified gastroenterologist Harvey Allen Jr., MD. You should visit a doctor when eye drops don't provide relief for dry eye discomfort or impaired vision interferes with daily living.
Dark rings around your iris
Next time you're having a staring contest, ask your opponent to check for dark circles around your iris (the colored tissue at the front of your eye). Dark brownish rings encircling the pupil are Kayser-Fleischer (KF) rings and could be a sign of liver disorders including cirrhosis, viral hepatitis infection, hemochromatosis, and Wilson's disease—a rare condition that causes copper to collect in your liver.
Excess levels of copper are what cause KF rings to form around the iris of your eye. "The copper deposits in the cornea are related to Wilson's Disease, but can also occur with cirrhosis and cholestasis," explains Karen Squier, OD, MS, FAAO, associate professor at the Southern College of Optometry. "Treatment to reduce copper deposits can be prescribed by a doctor and reduce their appearance."
You can prevent KF rings by avoiding or eliminating alcohol and eating a low copper diet. In addition, if you notice dark brown circles around your irises, see a doctor right away, as they're likely a sign of an underlying liver condition.
Yellowing of your eye whites
If the whites of your eyes have taken on a yellowish tinge, you may have jaundice. Jaundice occurs from high bilirubin levels (a yellowish-orange bile pigment secreted by the liver) that are caused by blockage of the liver's bile ducts.
"Jaundice requires immediate attention by a health care professional and can be an early sign of severe liver, gallbladder, or pancreatic disease," warns Allen. Preventive measures against jaundice include not consuming alcohol in excess, maintaining a healthy weight, and managing cholesterol levels.
If you develop new symptoms—including weight loss, nausea, loss of appetite, and abdominal pain—along with yellowish eyes and skin, see a doctor as soon as possible. "A doctor will be able to get bloodwork done and perform an ultrasound of your liver to look for signs of cancer or underlying liver issues," says Schafer.