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What is the Connection Between Liver Disease and Itching?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Liver disease and itching are closely connected; in fact, itching is a tell-tale sign of liver disease when it involves a generalized itch across the whole body, known as pruritus. Itching can also be associated with kidney failure and other systemic diseases, but when people experience this symptom, yellowing of the skin and eyes, and abdominal tenderness, liver disease is the likely culprit. There are medications available to manage the problem so patients with liver disease will feel more comfortable.

The precise mechanism behind the connection is not well understood. In healthy individuals, the liver acts as a filter, removing toxins and irritants from the bloodstream so they can be eliminated. People with liver disease cannot filter the blood efficiently, and some researchers have suggested that irritants can build up in the blood and deposit in the skin. Another sign of liver disease is blood vessel irritation leading to spidering veins just under the skin, an indicator that the vessels are inflamed because of something in the blood.

It is also possible that liver disease and itching are associated as a result of neuropathy. Irritants in the blood can damage the nerves, causing them to send confused or mixed signals to the brain. The nerves may read neutral or nonexistent sensations as itching, in which case the patient's skin is totally normal, but it still feels itchy.

The more advanced the liver disease, the more severe the itching can become. The organ becomes increasingly unable to filter effectively, and the toxins in the blood cannot be eliminated by other organs. People with liver disease can seriously injure themselves scratching as they attempt to cope with the pruritus. Some may try wearing gloves at night so they don't scratch themselves in their sleep.

Several things can be done to help manage itchy skin caused by liver disease. Medications can blunt the sensation, topical applications can soothe irritated skin, and patients can also try meditation and guided imagery. If the underlying liver disease can be managed, this should make the symptoms less severe, making the patient feel more comfortable and reducing the risk of complications, like infections caused by incessant scratching. Patients should be alert to changes in skin color and texture, as these may indicate a decline in liver function.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon341012 — On Jul 07, 2013

Energy runs through your body and through specific organs throughout the night. That is why a Chinese medicine doctor suggests going to sleep at 9 p.m. and they ask you if you wake up at night to use the restroom because that tells them what organ is activated at that time. Honestly.

I played the doctor to doctor game and my doctor was clueless why I was itching. Oh, everyone has dry skin he said, and then he said his wife has that too. I laughed because it was such a dumb answer.

I fired him that day and went to a Chinese medicine doctor that day and in 15 minutes he said I had a liver pattern going on. We ran tests and he was right. He cured me in a flash.

By turquoise — On Jan 11, 2013

I understand that itching happens because of the high level of chemicals in the bloodstream. But is there an explanation for why the itching is more severe at night?

By serenesurface — On Jan 11, 2013

@ZipLine-- There are some natural topical creams that might relieve the itching and the irritation caused by liver disease and its symptoms.

But if you want something that's especially made to treat the itching associated with liver disease, it needs to be prescribed by the doctor.

I think there are several creams and powder medications that many liver disease patients use that work well. Just take your aunt to see her doctor for one. The over-the-counter stuff doesn't really work well enough.

By ZipLine — On Jan 10, 2013

My aunt has liver disease (cirrhosis) and has started experiencing a lot of itching lately. She's staying with me and she has tried topical creams but it's not enough.

Is anyone here also experiencing itching from liver disease? Have you found anything that helps with the itching? Does it need to be prescribed by her doctor?

By anon165151 — On Apr 03, 2011

really helpful and in understandable language.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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