Explore this section to learn more about the ways in which alcohol affects the liver and how alcohol-induced liver disease is diagnosed and treated.
Why is the liver important?
The liver is the second largest organ in your body and is located under your rib cage on the right side. It weighs about three pounds and is shaped like a football that is flat on one side.
The liver performs many jobs in your body. It processes what you eat and drink into energy and nutrients your body can use. The liver also removes harmful substances from your blood.
How does alcohol affect the liver?
Alcohol can damage or destroy liver cells.
The liver breaks down alcohol so it can be removed from your body. Your liver can become injured or seriously damaged if you drink more alcohol than it can process.
What are the different types of alcohol-related liver disease?
There are three main types of alcohol-related liver disease: alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and alcoholic cirrhosis.
Alcoholic fatty liver disease
Alcoholic fatty liver disease results from the deposition of fat in liver cells. It is the earliest stage of alcohol-related liver disease. There are usually no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they may include fatigue, weakness, and discomfort localized to the right upper abdomen. Liver enzymes may be elevated, however tests of liver function are often normal. Many heavy drinkers have fatty liver disease. Alcoholic fatty liver disease may be reversible with abstinence of alcohol.
Alcoholic hepatitis is characterized by fat deposition in liver cells, inflammation and mild scarring of the liver. Symptoms may include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and jaundice. Liver enzymes are elevated and tests of liver function may be abnormal. Up to 35 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis and of these 55% already have cirrhosis.
Alcoholic hepatitis can be mild or severe. Mild alcoholic hepatitis may be reversed with abstinence. Severe alcoholic hepatitis may occur suddenly and lead to serious complications including liver failure and death.
Alcoholic cirrhosis, the most advanced type of alcohol induced liver injury is characterized by severe scarring and disruption of the normal structure of the liver -- hard scar tissue replaces soft healthy tissue. Between 10 and 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis. Symptoms of cirrhosis may be similar to those of severe alcoholic hepatitis. Cirrhosis is the most advanced type of alcohol-related liver disease and is not reversed with abstinence. However, abstinence may improve the symptoms and signs of liver disease and prevent further damage.
How does alcohol-related liver disease progress?
Many heavy drinkers will progress from fatty liver disease to alcoholic hepatitis to alcoholic cirrhosis over time. However, some heavy drinkers may develop cirrhosis without first having alcoholic hepatitis first. Others may have alcoholic hepatitis but never have symptoms. Additionally, alcohol consumption may worsen liver injury caused by non-alcoholic liver diseases such as chronic hepatitis C.
Since an individual's susceptibility to the toxic effects of alcohol may vary by many factors including age, gender, genetics and coexistent medical conditions, it is reaspnable for you to review alcohol use with your physician.
What are the complications of alcohol-related liver disease?
Complications from alcohol-related liver disease usually occur after years of heavy drinking. These complications can be serious.
They may include liver related conditions that are a consequence of portal hypertension:
• build up of fluid in the abdomen
• bleeding from veins in the esophagus or stomach
• enlarged spleen
• brain disorders and coma
• kidney failure
• liver cancer
In addition alcoholic liver disease may be accompanied by multi-organ non-liver conditions.
How is alcohol-related liver disease diagnosed?
Alcohol-related liver disease may be suspected based on a person's history of alcohol abuse, laboratory or radiologic abnormalities or medical conditions related to alcohol abuse. Blood tests may be used to rule out other liver diseases. Your doctor also may need to do a liver biopsy. During a biopsy, a small piece of liver tissue is removed and studied in the lab.
How is alcohol-related liver disease treated?
Treatment for alcohol-related liver disease requires a healthy diet including avoiding alcohol. Your doctor may suggest changes in your diet to help your liver recover from the alcohol-related damage. Treatment may require you to participate in an alcohol recovery program. Medications may be needed to manage the complications caused by your liver damage. Individuals with advanced alcoholic liver disease that does not improve with abstinence and medical management may benefit from a liver transplant.