Liver Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Doctor checking senior mans back in examination room
Hero Images / Getty Images

Liver cancer can affect both children and adults, but occurs most often in adults. There are several types of liver cancer, but the risk factors and prevention tips below refer to adult primary liver cancer, called hepatocellular carcinoma (aka hepatoma or HCC).

Great strides have been made in liver cancer research, cluing us into what may cause the disease and increases our risk of developing it. Some liver cancer risk factors can be controlled through lifestyle modifications, like limiting alcohol consumption.

Other factors cannot be controlled, however, such as race and genetics.

Excessive, Long-Term Alcohol Use:

Excessive, long-term use of alcohol can cause liver damage caused cirrhosis, a condition marked by scarring of the liver. This scar tissue replaces healthy tissue, impeding liver function, leaving it unable to perform it's vital duties. Cirrhosis is a major risk factor for liver cancer development.

Hepatitis Infection:

A chronic infection with hepatitis B or hepatitis C is also a major risk factor for liver cancer development.

Aflatoxin Exposure:

Eating foods tainted with aflatoxin (poison from a fungus that can grow on foods, such as grains and nuts, that have not been stored properly), can increase your risk of developing liver cancer. Aflatoxin poisoning is uncommon in the United States due to strict regulations and testing, but can occur in other countries where the storage of these foods may be favorable to mold growth.


Having hereditary hemochromatosis, a condition marked by the body's increased absorption and storage of iron, increases one's risk of developing liver cancer. It is a common genetic disorder that is associated with cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure and other conditions unrelated to the liver.

People with hemochromatosis store excess amounts of iron in the body's tissue, commonly in liver tissue, ultimately causing liver damage that can lead to liver cancer.

Sclerosing Cholangitis:

Sclerosing cholangitis is a chronic disease that causes the bile ducts to become inflamed and damaged, leading to cirrhosis and possibly even cancer. Other complications from sclerosing cholangitis include vitamin deficiencies, liver failure, and bile duct infections.


Smoking is a risk factor many types of cancer, and liver cancer is no exception. Several studies suggest a link between smoking and liver cancer.

Race and Sex:

Asians and Pacific Islanders develop liver cancer more often than other races, largely due to the hepatitis epidemic among these regions. Caucasians develop liver cancer less frequently than these minority race populations.

Liver cancer is also much more common in men than in women, although the reasoning isn't quite clear, yet.

Reducing Your Risk of Developing Liver Cancer:

Watching your alcohol intake is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of liver cancer. Drinking more than a moderate amount of alcohol long term is a leading risk factor of liver cancer. If you do drink, do so in moderation.

We also know that hepatitis B and C infections are also a major risk factor of liver cancer. To prevent hepatitis B infection, ensure you and your children have been properly immunized with the Hep B vaccine.

Shared tattoo and illegal drug needles are a source of infection of not only HIV, but also hepatitis C. Ensure needles in tattoo studios have not been reused. If you are an IV drug user, don't share needles.

Engaging in unprotected sex with an infected person can also spread the virus, so always protect yourself by using a condom during sexual intercourse.

If you are smoker, now is never a better time to quit.

Smoking not only has been linked to liver cancer, it has also been connected with many other types of cancers and diseases as well.


National Cancer Institute. Liver Cancer.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health. Cirrhosis.