Fatty liver disease may be dangerous, as it increases a person’s risk of developing scarring of the liver and cancer. This in turn can decrease someone’s life expectancy. However, some lifestyle changes may help reduce these risks.

Fatty liver disease occurs when fat builds up in the liver. In the early stages, it may not cause symptoms. There are two main types of fatty liver disease: nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD).

This article reviews how fatty liver disease affects a person’s health, including the potential risks, severity, complications, and more.

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In some cases, fatty liver disease may not cause any damage.

However, some people with the condition will develop either nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) or alcoholic steatohepatitis. This occurs when fat buildup in the liver results in inflammation and scarring of liver cells.

This can lead to reduced liver function and liver failure. It may also put a person at a higher risk of developing liver cancer.

NASH is the most severe form of NAFLD. A person with NASH develops fat on the liver and also experiences inflammation of liver cells and different degrees of cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis is a condition that affects the liver where damage to this organ causes scar tissue to slowly replace healthy liver tissue. As the condition progresses, it can lead to decreasing liver function and eventually liver failure, where a person may require a liver transplant.

About 30% of people with NAFLD will eventually develop NASH, inflammation of the liver, and scarring. An additional 20% of those with NASH will develop end stage cirrhosis, which can lead to cancer and failure.

In cases of alcohol-related liver disease, severe stages include cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis.

Learn more about fatty liver disease.

NAFLD can develop into NASH in about 30% of people living with the condition. NASH is more severe because of its association with inflammation of the liver cells and the development of scar tissue.

Possible complications include:

  • scar tissue formation that can lead to end-stage cirrhosis and a need for a liver transplant
  • loss of liver function
  • liver cancer

A person’s doctor can advise on ways they can reduce the risk of complications from fatty liver disease.

Learn more about cirrhosis.

AFLD can develop in people who drink large quantities of alcohol.

NAFLD can occur in anyone, even those without known risk factors.

Factors that may increase the risk of NAFLD include:

People living with metabolic syndrome also have a higher risk of developing NAFLD. Metabolic syndrome is a group of traits and medical conditions relating to overweight and obesity. The presence of any three of the following traits means someone may have metabolic syndrome:

  • high blood pressure
  • a large waist size
  • low levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol in the blood
  • high levels of triglycerides in the blood
  • higher than usual blood glucose levels or a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes

It is best for a person to contact a doctor if they have concerns about the risk factors of fatty liver disease.

There are no medications with approval for treating NAFLD or NASH. Instead, doctors typically recommend gradual weight loss through exercise and dietary changes.

A loss of about 3–5% of body weight can lead to reduced fat around the liver. A loss of about 7–10% of body weight can help reduce liver inflammation and scarring.

A person should also take steps to:

  • manage diabetes where applicable
  • reduce high cholesterol levels
  • avoid drinking alcohol

A doctor may recommend additional treatments to address complications, such as cirrhosis. Treatments for complications may include:

  • medications
  • minor procedures
  • surgery
  • liver replacement

Learn more about treatments for NAFLD.

The following sections provide answers to frequently asked questions about fatty liver disease.

How long can someone live with fatty liver disease?

A person who takes steps to address fatty liver disease may be able to live a healthy life. However, in severe cases that cause complications, the condition may affect someone’s life expectancy.

It is important to contact a doctor as soon as there are concerns about fatty liver disease so that a person can begin treatment as early as possible.

Can you make a fatty liver go away?

With dietary changes and exercise, a person can help the liver heal and reverse fatty liver disease.

What are the three signs of a fatty liver?

Most people with fatty liver show no signs. If they occur, they can include fatigue or discomfort in the upper right abdomen.

Fatty liver disease typically causes no symptoms, but it can be a dangerous condition if it leads to complications such as cirrhosis.

Treatment may involve managing diabetes and high cholesterol, dietary changes, maintaining a moderate weight, and getting enough physical activity.

It is best for a person to contact a doctor if they have concerns about fatty liver disease. The doctor can advise on suitable treatments and ways to reduce the risk of complications.