For more than one third of all adults in the U.S., fatty liver disease is a common condition. Research shows that the disease could become the main cause of liver transplants in the next 10 years.

The liver is located under the rib cage on the right side of the body and is the second-largest organ. The liver performs a number of different jobs, including turning food and drink into energy and nutrients for the body. It also helps remove harmful substances from blood.

While this article focuses on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) there are other types of this disease, including:

Alcoholic fatty liver: This form can lead to cirrhosis for individuals with heavy alcohol intake. Normal or even social alcohol use, combined with an unhealthy diet, can also lead to fatty liver disease.

Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis: A more serious form of NAFLD, this condition can lead to permanent scaring of the liver, and if left untreated, liver failure.

Acute fatty liver of pregnancy: This condition commonly occurs in the third trimester of pregnancy, causing constant nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, fatigue and jaundice.

Simply put, NAFLD is the buildup of extra fat in liver cells that is not caused by consuming alcohol. Normal fat level in the liver is below 5 percent. Any more than that and it’s called a fatty liver or steatosis. It is also the fourth-leading cause of death among 45—54-year-olds and affects more than 6 million children – mostly related to childhood obesity.

NAFLD can cause the liver to swell, which over time causes scarring that can potentially lead to liver cancer or failure. People with this condition can have no side effects or symptoms, while others may experience some of the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Spider-like blood vessels
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Itching
  • Fluid buildup and swelling in the legs and abdomen
  • Mental confusion

NAFLD is commonly detected through a blood test. High levels of enzymes in the bloodstream are an early sign of NAFLD. Also, an ultrasound of the liver can confirm the initial NAFLD diagnosis from the blood test.

When NAFLD is detected early, changes in diet and exercise can help prevent further damage to the liver and actually help reverse the damage. Treatment methods include:

  • Losing weight if overweight or obese
  • Lowering cholesterol and triglycerides
  • Adding more good fats (monounsaturated fatty acids like olive oil, avocadoes and nuts) to your diet
  • Controlling a diabetic condition
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Catching this condition early is key to stopping and eventually reversing its effects. Talk to your doctor at your next annual checkup if you are concerned at all about NAFLD.