A condition in which fat accumulates in the cells of the liver. Fatty liver is usually associated with heavy alcohol use, excessive weight gain, or diabetes. It is most commonly found on routine blood screening, since it tends to cause minor elevations in liver enzyme levels. A fatty liver may show up on imaging tests such as ultrasound or CT scanning, but the diagnosis requires a liver biopsy.
Fatty liver itself does not lead to clinical disease or need to be treated. Often, however, the underlying cause of fatty liver can cause other problems and needs to be treated. For example, chronic excessive drinking can lead to other serious liver abnormalities such as alcoholic hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) or cirrhosis (hardening and scarring of the liver). People with diabetes, even if they don’t drink alcohol, can develop an inflammation of the liver called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (or NASH, for short), especially if they are overweight and their blood glucose levels are not kept close to the normal range.
Treating fatty liver depends on the underlying cause. In an individual who drinks too much, this means discontinuing or reducing alcohol intake; in an overweight person, it means losing weight; and in a person with diabetes, it means improving blood glucose control. These measures should reduce the amount of fat in the liver.
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