A Guide to Good Health

How Pediatricians Diagnose Childhood Liver Disease

Pediatric liver disease can be caused by infections such as hepatitis, certain medications, genetic diseases, and bile duct disorders. The symptoms of pediatric liver disease can mimic other health conditions, and because of this, pediatricians perform comprehensive medical examinations and order various medical tests that can help confirm the diagnosis of liver disease in children. Here are some ways your child's pediatrician may suspect that he or she has liver disease.

Physical Examination

The first thing your child's pediatrician will do to evaluate his or her liver function is to perform a physical examination. The doctor will palpate the liver, which is located in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen.

The doctor will assess the liver for signs of hardness or enlargement, and in addition to the liver, he or she will also palpate the spleen and gallbladder, which can also enlarge in the presence of liver disease. The doctor will also look for a distended abdomen, which may mean that your child has a condition known as ascites, or fluid in the abdomen. Ascites can be associated with liver disease; however, it can also be caused by other health conditions.

The physician will also inspect your child's skin and whites of the eyes for jaundice, or yellowing. Jaundice is caused by the overproduction of bilirubin, which is a yellow substance that is secreted by the liver. Jaundice is often a sign of liver disease.

Diagnostic Tests

If your child's physical examination reveals signs of liver disease, the pediatrician will order diagnostic tests such as a blood chemistry profile. This blood test evaluates bilirubin levels and certain liver enzymes. If elevated, further testing will be necessary.

A complete blood count test will also be ordered. This test evaluates the hemoglobin, hematocrit, and blood platelets, and if they are abnormal, it may mean that the liver is malfunctioning. Imaging tests may also be ordered, such as an ultrasound of the liver.

Ultrasounds are painless and safe, and they do not use ionizing radiation as traditional X-rays do. Instead, ultrasound imaging tests use sound waves to capture images in real-time. In addition to an ultrasound of the liver, the doctor may order an ultrasound of the gallbladder and bile ducts. 

If your child complains of nausea, has a poor appetite, has itchy skin, or appears jaundiced, make an appointment with the pediatric doctor as soon as possible. When pediatric liver disease is recognized and treated in its early stages, your child is more likely to have a more favorable prognosis. 

For more information, speak with a pediatric doctor