Alcoholic Liver Disease

Alcoholic liver disease is diagnosed when there is damage to the liver due to alcohol abuse, which may include alcoholism, binge drinking, or simply excessive alcohol consumption. Over the course of years, heavy drinking damages the liver, leading to alcohol-related liver disease.

When alcohol is consumed, it is metabolized in the liver. During this process, the body produces substances that can damage the liver. If an individual continues to drink heavily, the liver sustains more and more damage, eventually impacting its function, often leading to liver failure.  

While alcoholic liver disease does not impact every person who drinks heavily, the risk increases with the frequency and the amount of alcohol consumed. The American College of Gastroenterology reports that men who drink more than three drinks per day and women who drink more than two drinks per day for five years are at an increased risk of alcoholic liver disease. 

Alcoholic Liver Disease Symptoms

When alcoholic liver disease first develops, a person may experience no symptoms; but over time, the damage increases and symptoms gradually emerge. Symptoms of alcoholic liver disease may include:

  • Deteriorated brain function
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin or eyes)
  • Liver enlargement
  • Liver failure  

Bleeding in the digestive tract is a complication of alcoholic liver disease.

There are three main types of alcoholic liver disease - fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis ,and cirrhosis. Depending on the type of liver damage sustained, patients may develop other symptoms. 

Alcoholic hepatitis, for example, causes liver inflammation. Cirrhosis can lead to a full range of serious health complications, including esophageal varices, which are enlarged veins in the esophagus, and portal hypertension, which is elevated blood pressure in the vein to the liver. 

Alcoholic Liver Disease Treatment

If a physician suspects you have an alcohol-related liver disease, he or she may ask you questions about your alcohol use and perform a physical exam. Blood work and imaging also may be used in the diagnosis.  
Treatment options for alcoholic liver disease will vary, depending on the type of liver disease a diagnosed. In most cases, fatty liver can be alleviated with lifestyle changes, including weight loss and a healthy diet.

Alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis have more complex and serious effects on overall health. If you're diagnosed with either condition, your doctor will recommend abstinence from alcohol, which can slow down the progress of the disease. 

Treatment also may include recommendations for lifestyle changes, prescription of a special diet or vitamin supplementation, medication to treat individual symptoms and even a liver transplant in cases where liver damage is substantial and irreversible.