Alcoholic liver disease
Alcoholic liver disease is damage to the liver and its function due to alcohol abuse.
Liver disease due to alcohol; Cirrhosis or hepatitis - alcoholic; Laennec's cirrhosis
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Acute alcoholic hepatitis can result from binge drinking. It may be life-threatening if severe.
People who drink excessively can become malnourished because of the empty calories from alcohol, reduced appetite, and poor absorption (malabsorption) of nutrients in the intestines. Malnutrition contributes to liver disease.
Other factors that contribute to the development of alcoholic liver disease:
- Genetic factors
- Personal susceptibility to alcohol-induced liver disease
- Toxicity of alcohol (ethanol) to the liver
Alcoholic liver disease does not affect all heavy drinkers. Women may be more susceptible than men. It is not necessary to get drunk for the disease to develop.
Symptoms vary based on the severity of the disease. They are usually worse after a recent period of heavy drinking. Disease changes start in the liver as inflammation (hepatitis) and lead to fatty liver and cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is the final phase of alcoholic liver disease.
Symptoms may not be present until the disease is advanced, and may include:
- Abdominal pain and tenderness
- Dry mouth
- Excessive thirst
- Fluid collection in the abdomen (ascites)
- Loss of appetite
- Mental confusion
- Unintentional weight gain (because of fluid collection)
Other symptoms that can occur with this disease:
- Abnormally dark or light skin
- Bloody, dark black, or tarry bowel movements (melena)
- Breast development in males
- Changing mood
- Confusion (encephalopathy)
- Changed level of consciousness
- Impaired short- or long-term memory
- Difficulty paying attention (attention deficit)
- Impaired ability to concentrate
- Impaired judgment
- Light-headedness or fainting, especially when standing
- Rapid heart rate (tachycardia) when rising to standing position
- Redness on feet or hands
- Slow, sluggish, lethargic movement
- Vomiting blood or material that looks like coffee grounds
Signs and tests
Tests to rule out other diseases include:
The most important part of treatment is to stop using alcohol completely. If liver cirrhosis has not yet occurred, the liver can heal if you stop drinking alcohol.
An alcohol rehabilitation program or counseling may be necessary to break the alcohol addiction. Vitamins, especially B-complex and folic acid, can help reverse malnutrition.
If cirrhosis develops, you will need to manage the complications of cirrhosis. You may need a liver transplant.
You can often ease the stress of illness by joining a support group whose members share common experiences and problems.
Continued excessive drinking can shorten your lifespan. The outcome will likely be poor if you keep drinking.
Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if:
- You develop symptoms of alcoholic liver disease
- You develop symptoms after prolonged or heavy drinking
- You are concerned that drinking may be damaging your health
Discuss your alcohol intake with your doctor. The doctor can counsel you about how much alcohol is safe to drink for your situation.
Carithers RL, McClain C. Alcoholic liver disease. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ. Feldman: Sleisinger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2006:chap 81.
Schuppan D, Afdhal NH. Liver cirrhosis. Lancet. 2008;371:838-851.
Reviewed By: George F Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.