WHILE heart disease, cancer, stroke and respiratory illness often steal the headlines as the greatest threats to the health of people in Britain, liver disease affects at least two million people in the UK.

There are in fact 100 different types of liver disease and the British Liver Trust is this week (June 20 to 26) aiming to raise awareness of this second largest organ in the body, the conditions that affect it and what people can to prevent liver disease or manage their condition.

This week is Love Your Liver week. It is organised by the charity and aims to raise awareness that one in five people in the UK may have the early stages of liver disease but are not aware of it.

The liver performs hundreds of complex functions including

• fighting infections and illness

• removing toxins (poisons), such as alcohol, from the body

• controlling cholesterol levels helping blood to clot

• releasing bile, a liquid that breaks down fats and aids digestion

According to the NHS, liver disease doesn’t usually cause any obvious signs or symptoms until it is fairly well advanced and the organ is damaged. Once it reaches this stage the symptoms can include loss of appetite, weight loss and jaundice – recognised by yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, pale coloured stools and dark-coloured urine.

It says liver disease is increasing in the UK and the three main causes are obesity, undiagnosed hepatitis infections and alcohol misuse.

These can cause alcohol related liver disease where the liver is damaged after years of alcohol misuse leading to cirrhosis/scarring of the liver; non-alcoholic fatty liver disease where fat builds up in the liver cells manly in people who are overweight or obese and hepatitis which is inflammation of the liver caused by a virus or exposure to harmful substances like alcohol.

Other liver diseases are haemochromatosis which is an inherited disorder where there is a build-up of iron around the liver and primary biliary cirrhosis. This is a rare long-term liver disease that damages the bile ducts in the liver.

The British Liver Trust’s awareness campaign this week includes encouraging people to make coffee in a bid to raise awareness and funds for the charity.

The trust says recent research suggests that a daily coffee may actually be good for the liver and is calling for more clinical research is this area.

Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said: ““Although the liver is remarkably resilient and can regenerate if given time to recover, by the time most people have signs and symptoms of liver damage, it is often irreversible.

“It’s known as a silent killer because it has few symptoms. Three quarters of people already have end stage liver disease when they are first diagnosed – by this time for many it is too late.

“I would urge everyone to see if they are ‘at risk’ by doing the Love Your Liver Health Screener on our website. If the simple online questions reveal you’re at risk, you should see your GP, who can do blood tests.

“Depending on the results of those, you may be referred to a specialist (either a hepatologist or a gastroenterologist), who will carry out further investigations.”

Dr Carl Ellson, chief clinical officer for NHS South Worcestershire Clinical Ccommissioning Group, said: “The liver is one of the most important organs within the body. It performs a number of key functions to keep you well including removing toxins such as alcohol, controlling cholesterol levels and helping blood to clot.

“There are three main causes of liver disease and these are obesity, having an undiagnosed hepatitis infection and drinking too much alcohol.

“It’s important that we do all we can to look after our liver. You can help keep your liver performing as it should, by eating a balanced diet and taking plenty of exercise to maintain a healthy weight, avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, it’s recommended to drink no more than 14 units per week and make sure you take three days off each week to let you liver recover.

"It’s also important to take measures to prevent getting hepatitis, such as getting vaccinated if you’re at risk and not sharing personal items like razors and toothbrushes.”

To take the Love Your Liver online Health Screener, donate or hold a ‘Perk up your Liver’ event visit www.britishlivertrust.org.uk

The trust is suggesting three simple steps to help people look after their liver:

Step 1: Keep to a healthy weight

The increasing numbers of us who are overweight is the major reason that we are seeing the huge rises in the numbers of people with Non-Alcohol related Fatty Liver Disease in the UK. Love Your Liver by making sure you have a healthy diet, plenty of water to drink and regular exercise.

Step 2: Reduce the amount of alcohol you drink

As a nation, we are drinking far more than our parents did. Too much alcohol can cause serious and lasting damage. The British Liver Trust recommends having two to three days each week without drinking. It’s an easy message but a very effective way of reducing the amount you drink, giving your liver a rest and making it easier to stick within the Government guidelines of 14 units a week.

Step 3: Know and avoid the risks for viral hepatitis

Blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis A, B and C can cause permanent liver damage and increase the risk of liver cancer. Avoid these viruses by never sharing personal items like toothbrushes, razors, nail scissors or tweezers, drug equipment and by practising safer sex. If you get a tattoo make sure it is in a licensed parlour. If you think you may have been at risk in the past – even if it was a long time ago – ask your doctor for a test.