By: Alexis J. Gumm, MD, FAAP
Fatty liver disease happens when triglycerides, a specific kind of fat, build up in the liver. Over time, this can lead to liver damage.
In the past, fatty liver disease was considered an adult disease. But it has become much more common in children and teens. In fact, it is now the most frequent cause of liver disease worldwide. Here's what parents need to know.
Are some kids at increased risk of fatty liver disease?
Children and teens are at increased risk of fatty liver disease if they have:
Body mass index (BMI) above the 85th percentile
obesity, the build-up of fat focused around the abdomen
Insulin resistance, when the body has trouble using the hormone insulin to control blood sugar
Prediabetes or Type 2
diabetes (once called adult-onset or non-insulin dependent diabetes)
Abnormal levels of blood lipids, including cholesterol and other fat-like substances
Metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance that is associated with high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, obesity and in some cases, irregular menstrual periods in females
Sleep apnea, repeated disruption of normal breathing during sleep)
Family history of fatty liver disease
Asian-American and Hispanic children are also at increased risk of fatty liver disease.
What are the signs & symptoms of fatty liver disease in children?
Most people with fatty liver disease do not have any symptoms at all. Occasionally, kids may experience pain in the upper-right part of their abdomen. This sort of abdominal pain typically is not caused by fatty liver disease, but it sometimes prompt testing that may show fatty liver disease. Fatty liver disease is usually diagnosed after routine labs tests your child's doctor orders at checkups raise concern.
What kind of tests can diagnose fatty liver disease?
Your doctor may order the following tests that can help diagnose fatty liver disease:
An ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), magnetic resonance elastography (MRE) or vibration-controlled transient elastography (VCTE) to look at the liver
A liver biopsy might be ordered by your child's doctor to diagnose fatty liver disease.
How to treat fatty liver disease in children
Fatty liver disease is best treated with
lifestyle changes: cutting back on processed sugars and fats in the diets and increasing daily
What happens if fatty liver disease isn't treated?
As fat builds up in the liver over time, this can lead to liver scarring. Over many years, this eventually can lead to liver failure. It is the most common cause of liver transplants in adults.
Talk with your child's pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns about your child's health.
About Dr. Gumm
Alexis J. Gumm, M.D., FAAP, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, is a a transplant hepatologist at Children's Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.