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As the pandemic continues it’s clear that it’s impact on our health goes beyond the threat of the virus itself. Sadly, new findings by the Office for National Statistics noted a ‘statistically significant’ increase in alcohol deaths in the period after the first lockdown was imposed.

While we can enjoy alcohol safely and responsibly, excessive consumption can cause liver disease and in some cases irreparable damage to this vital organ. We spoke to Consultant Hepatologist and Gastroenterologist Dr Vikram Sharma about the impact of the pandemic on his patients, and how to spot the signs of liver disease.

How has the pandemic impacted the types of patients you’re seeing?

We’re seeing three different kind of patients. There are those who are health conscious and are seeking clarity and guidance after spotting a change in their lifestyle, those who have noticed some mild symptoms and then those who unfortunately have significant symptoms of advanced liver damage.

The first two groups are often seen in an outpatient setting, but the third group are usually admitted because their disease has progressed beyond a point at which it can be managed in the outpatient clinics. Many of these patients have no knowledge of their underlying condition and many of them had never experienced symptoms of liver disease before lockdown.

How have the lifestyle changes brought on by lockdown affected our livers?

While many people are out and about exercising regularly, there are also a large number of people who are experiencing a more sedentary lifestyle and weight gain puts pressure on the liver by either causing a new case of fatty liver disease, or making the existing condition worse.

Stress, boredom and poor mental health also mean that people are drinking more frequently and in larger quantities. As a result, I’ve had many patients coming in with both early and advanced stages of liver disease who are shocked at their diagnosis – many have never had liver problems before and the diagnosis itself can also have a negative effect on a person’s mental health.

What sort of symptoms of liver disease should you look out for and at what point should someone seek help?

Unfortunately, the majority of liver diseases are asymptomatic at early stages but weight gain and excessive drinking put you at high risk, so even if you don’t spot any symptoms it’s worth going to your GP for a routine health check. Even if you do experience symptoms, they are often quite generic, such as abdominal pain and feeling lethargic, so it’s always important to seek help if something doesn’t feel right.

If you’re experiencing any jaundice (discolouration of the skin), distension of the abdomen, pale stools, dark urine and significant weight loss then you should seek urgent help, as these can be all symptoms of advanced liver disease.

How can patients access treatment for liver disease during the pandemic and beyond?

Patients with concerns around their liver health can make an appointment with their GP, who may carry out blood tests. Anyone struggling to access their GP, can use alternatives such as online or private GPs, Urgent Care Centres or even come directly to a liver specialist in a private care setting, who may also do blood tests and scans of the liver.

In many cases, you may not have advanced disease but could benefit from lifestyle changes. Myself and my colleagues at The Harley Street Clinic can advise on these changes and various interventions to benefit both your liver and your overall health.

The earlier we intervene the more chance we have of avoiding the silent progression of liver disease while improving outcomes. The liver is a very durable, hardy organ but it can still suffer irreversible damage so it’s essential that patients are aware of the risk factors and seek help at the earliest opportunity.

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