Introduction 

A liver transplant is an operation to remove a diseased or damaged liver from the body and replace it with a healthy one.

It is recommended when the liver has been damaged to the point that it cannot perform its normal functions and is likely to fail.

Read more about why you might need a liver transplant.

Although fairly common, a liver transplant is a major operation. One of the biggest risks is that the body will reject the new organ. To prevent this from happening, you will have to take medication to suppress the immune system for the rest of your life.

Read more about recovering from a liver transplant.

Liver damage

The liver can become damaged as a result of illness, infection or alcohol. This damage causes the liver to become scarred, which is known as cirrhosis.

Some of the most common causes of liver damage and cirrhosis in England are:

  • hepatitis C – a blood-borne virus that can cause extensive liver damage in a minority of people
  • alcoholic cirrhosis – the liver becomes scarred because of years of persistent alcohol abuse
  • primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) – a poorly understood condition that causes progressive liver damage

Once cirrhosis reaches a certain level, the liver gradually loses all of its functions. This is known as liver failure, or end-stage liver disease.

The only hope for the long-term survival of a person with liver failure is a liver transplant.

Liver transplant

There are three types of liver transplant:

  • deceased organ donation involves transplanting a liver that has been removed from a person who died recently 
  • living donor liver transplant, where a section of liver is removed from a living donor – because the liver can regenerate itself, both the transplanted section and the remaining section of the donor's liver are able to regrow into a normal-sized liver
  • split donation, where a liver is removed from a person who died recently and is split into two pieces, one large and one smaller piece – each piece is transplanted into a different person, where they will grow to a normal size

Read more about how a liver transplant is performed.

Life after liver transplant

NHS Blood and Transplant recently found that around 86% of transplanted livers still function well a year after surgery.

However, survival rates can be influenced by a number of factors, including:

  • age
  • general state of health
  • the reason behind the liver transplantation
  • whether complications develop after the transplant, such as diabetes or kidney failure

The long-term use of immunosuppressants can also cause a wide range of side effects and make a person more vulnerable to infection. 

Read more about the complications of a liver transplant.

How common are liver transplants?

In 2011-12, a total of 726 liver transplants were carried out in the UK. However, the number of people who need a liver transplant is much higher than the number of livers donated. 

For adults, the average waiting time for a liver transplant is around 142 days, and for children it is about 78 days.

Read more about waiting for a liver transplant.

It is estimated that in the past 20 years, the number of people who could benefit from a liver transplant has increased by 90%, but the number of available donations has remained the same.

Consequently, deaths from liver disease remain high. In 2009, there were 11,575 deaths from liver disease in the UK.

The most effective way that people can reduce the number of deaths from liver disease is to join the NHS Organ Donor Register. It only takes a few minutes to register online (external link).

Liver transplant: Lorna's story

Lorna had a liver transplant in 2009. In this video, she shares her experience of having to wait for the right donor.

Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

The functions of the liver

The liver is one of the most complex organs in the body. It has more than 500 functions, most of which are essential for sustaining life.

The functions of the liver include:

  • filtering toxins from the blood
  • producing important chemicals, such as proteins and hormones
  • producing blood-clotting agents that can help prevent excessive bleeding
  • regulating cholesterol levels in the blood
  • helping fight infection and disease
  • storing energy for when the body needs an immediate energy boost

Page last reviewed: 22/01/2013

Next review due: 22/01/2015