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Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

(Alcoholic Liver Disease; Alcohol-Associated Liver Disease)

By

Whitney Jackson

, MD, University of Colorado School of Medicine

Last full review/revision May 2021| Content last modified May 2021
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Alcohol-related liver disease is liver damage caused by drinking too much alcohol for a long time.

  • In general, the amount of alcohol consumed (how much, how often, and for how long) determines the risk and severity of liver damage.

  • Symptoms range from none at first to fever, jaundice, fatigue, and a tender, painful, and enlarged liver, then to more serious problems such as bleeding in the digestive tract and deterioration of brain function.

  • To help identify whether drinking is a problem, doctors may give the person a questionnaire and ask family members how much the person drinks.

  • If people who have been drinking in excess have symptoms of liver disease, doctors do blood tests to evaluate the liver and occasionally do a liver biopsy.

  • The best treatment is to stop drinking alcohol, but doing so is very difficult and requires help, often in rehabilitation programs.

About 8.5% of adults in the United States are estimated to have alcohol use disorder in any given year. About twice as many men as women abuse alcohol. (See also Alcohol Alcohol Alcohol (ethanol) is a depressant. Consuming large amounts rapidly or regularly can cause health problems, including organ damage, coma, and death. Genetics and personal characteristics may... read more .)

Most alcohol, after being absorbed in the digestive tract, is processed (metabolized) in the liver. As alcohol is processed, substances that can damage the liver are produced. The more alcohol a person drinks, the greater the damage to the liver. When alcohol damages the liver, the liver can continue to function for a while because the liver can sometimes recover from mild damage. Also, the liver can function normally even when about 80% of it is damaged. However, if people continue to drink alcohol, liver damage progresses and may eventually result in death. If people stop drinking, some damage may be reversed. Such people are likely to live longer.

Cirrhosis can cause the following serious complications:

Risk Factors of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Alcohol-related liver disease is more likely to develop if people

  • Drink large amounts of alcohol

  • Have been drinking a long time (usually, for more than 8 years)

  • Are women

  • Have a genetic makeup that makes them susceptible to alcohol-related liver disease

  • Are obese

Alcohol consumption

People can understand their risk of alcohol-related liver disease more precisely if they know how much alcohol they are drinking. To determine how much they are drinking, they need to know the alcohol content of alcoholic beverages. Different types of beverages contain different percentages of alcohol.

  • Beers: 2 to 7% in most

  • Wines: 10 to 15% in most

  • Hard liquors: 40 to 45% in most

However, in typical servings of these different types of beverages, the amount of alcohol is similar even though the amount of liquid is very different:

  • A 12-ounce can of beer: About 1/7 to 4/5 ounce

  • A 5-ounce glass of wine: About ⅔ to 1 ounce

  • A 1½-ounce shot (or typical mixed drink) of hard liquor: About ½ ounce

In hard liquor, the alcohol concentration is often described as proof. The proof is about twice the percentage of alcohol. For example, an 80-proof hard liquor contains 40% alcohol.

For men, risk increases if they drink more than about 1½ ounces of alcohol a day (especially if they drink more than about 3 ounces) for more than 10 years. Consuming 1½ ounces a day involves drinking about 3 cans of beer, 3 glasses of wine, or 3 shots of hard liquor. For cirrhosis to develop, men usually must drink more than about 3 ounces of alcohol a day for more than 10 years. Consuming 3 ounces a day involves drinking 6 cans of beer, 5 glasses of wine, or 6 shots of liquor. About half the men who drink more than 8 ounces of alcohol a day for 20 years develop cirrhosis Cirrhosis of the Liver Cirrhosis is the widespread distortion of the liver's internal structure that occurs when a large amount of normal liver tissue is permanently replaced with nonfunctioning scar tissue. The scar... read more Cirrhosis of the Liver .

Generally, the more and the longer people drink, the greater their risk of alcohol-related liver disease. However, liver disease does not develop in every person who drinks heavily for a long time. Thus, other factors are involved.

Sex

Women are more vulnerable to liver damage by alcohol, even after adjustments are made for smaller body size. Women are at risk of liver damage if they drink about half as much alcohol as men. That is, drinking more than ¾ to 1½ ounces of alcohol a day puts women at risk. Risk may be increased in women because their digestive system may be less able to process alcohol, thus increasing the amount of alcohol reaching the liver.

Genetic makeup

Genetic makeup is thought to be involved because alcohol-related liver disease often runs in families. Family members may share genes that make them less able to process alcohol.

Obesity

Obesity makes people more vulnerable to liver damage by alcohol.

Other factors

Iron may accumulate when people have hemochromatosis Hemochromatosis Hemochromatosis is a hereditary disorder that causes the body to absorb too much iron, causing iron to build up in the body and damage organs. In the United States, over 1 million people have... read more Hemochromatosis (a hereditary disorder that results in absorption of too much iron) or when they drink fortified wines that contain iron. However, iron accumulation is not necessarily related to how much iron is consumed.

More than 25% of heavy drinkers also have hepatitis C, and the combination of heavy drinking and hepatitis C greatly increases the risk of cirrhosis.

Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Heavy drinkers usually first develop symptoms during their 30s or 40s and tend to develop severe problems about 10 years after symptoms first appear.

As alcohol-related liver disease progresses to alcoholic hepatitis, symptoms may range from mild to life-threatening. People may have a fever, jaundice, and a tender, painful, enlarged liver. They may feel tired.

Heavy drinking can make the bands of fibrous tissue in the palms tighten, causing the fingers to curl (called Dupuytren contracture Dupuytren Contracture Dupuytren contracture is a progressive tightening of the bands of fibrous tissue (called fascia) inside the palms, causing a curling in of the fingers that eventually can result in a clawlike... read more Dupuytren Contracture ), and make the palms look red (called palmar erythema). Small spiderlike blood vessels (spider angiomas) may appear in the skin of the upper body. Salivary glands in the cheeks may enlarge, and muscles may waste away. Peripheral nerves (nerves outside the brain and spinal cord) may be damaged, causing loss of sensation and strength. The feet and hands are affected more than the upper legs and arms.

Men who drink heavily may develop female characteristics, such as smooth skin, enlarged breasts, and decreased body hair. Their testes may shrink.

People may become undernourished because drinking too much alcohol, which has calories but little nutritional value, decreases the appetite. Also, the damage caused by alcohol can interfere with the absorption and processing of nutrients. People may have deficiencies of folate, thiamin, other vitamins, or minerals. Deficiencies of certain minerals can cause weakness and shaking. Also, nutritional deficiencies probably cause or contribute to peripheral nerve damage.

Anemia may develop because bleeding occurs in the digestive tract or because people develop deficiencies of a nutrient needed to make red blood cells (certain vitamins or iron).

Diagnosis of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

  • A doctor's evaluation of symptoms

  • History of heavy alcohol use

Doctors suspect alcohol-related liver disease in people who have symptoms of liver disease and who drink a substantial amount of alcohol.

There is no definitive test for alcohol-related liver disease. But if doctors suspect the diagnosis, they do blood tests to evaluate the liver (liver tests Liver Blood Tests Liver tests are blood tests that represent a noninvasive way to screen for the presence of liver disease (for example, hepatitis in donated blood) and to measure the severity and progress of... read more ). A complete blood count to check for a low platelet count and anemia is also done.

A technique called ultrasound elastrography may be done to determine how stiff the liver is. A stiff liver indicates fibrosis Fibrosis of the Liver Fibrosis is the formation of an abnormally large amount of scar tissue in the liver. It occurs when the liver attempts to repair and replace damaged cells. Many conditions can damage the liver... read more . For this test, ultrasonography is done while pressure or vibration is applied to the liver. This test often makes a biopsy unnecessary.

Even if examination and test results suggest alcohol-related liver disease, doctors periodically check for other forms of liver disease that can be treated, especially viral hepatitis. Other causes of liver problems may coexist and, if present, must be treated.

Liver biopsy Biopsy of the Liver Doctors can obtain a sample of liver tissue during exploratory surgery, but more often they obtain a sample by inserting a hollow needle through the person's skin and into the liver. This type... read more is sometimes done when the diagnosis is uncertain or when liver disease appears to have more than one cause. Liver biopsy can confirm liver disease, provide evidence that alcohol is the likely cause, and determine the type of liver damage present. It can also identity whether iron has accumulated in the liver. Such accumulation may indicate hemochromatosis Hemochromatosis Hemochromatosis is a hereditary disorder that causes the body to absorb too much iron, causing iron to build up in the body and damage organs. In the United States, over 1 million people have... read more Hemochromatosis .

If people have cirrhosis, tests for liver cancer Hepatocellular Carcinoma Hepatocellular carcinoma is a cancer that begins in the liver cells and is the most common of the primary liver cancers. Having hepatitis B or hepatitis C or fatty liver disease, or drinking... read more are done. They include ultrasonography and blood tests to measure levels of alpha-fetoprotein, which are high in about half the people with liver cancer.

Prognosis for Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

The prognosis depends on how much fibrosis and inflammation are present.

Certain biopsy and blood test results can help doctors predict a person's prognosis better. Doctors can also use formulas and models (which combine various test results) to help predict prognosis.

Treatment of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

  • Stopping drinking (abstinence) and assistance in doing so

  • Treatment of symptoms and complications

  • Treatments for liver damage

Abstinence

Abstinence is usually the best treatment. Other than liver transplantation Liver Transplantation Liver transplantation is the surgical removal of a healthy liver or sometimes a part of a liver from a living person and then its transfer into a person whose liver no longer functions. (See... read more , abstinence is the only treatment that can slow or reverse alcohol-related liver disease. In addition, it is available to all and has no side effects.

Because abstinence is difficult, several strategies are used to help motivate people and to help them change their behavior. Strategies include behavioral therapy and psychotherapy (talk therapy)—often as part of a formal rehabilitation program—as well as self-help and support groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) and counseling sessions with the primary care doctor. Therapies that explore and help people clarify why they want to abstain from alcohol (called motivational enhancement therapy) may also be used.

Drugs

Drugs are sometimes used but only to supplement behavioral and psychosocial therapies (see Detoxification and rehabilitation Detoxification and rehabilitation Alcohol (ethanol) is a depressant. Consuming large amounts rapidly or regularly can cause health problems, including organ damage, coma, and death. Genetics and personal characteristics may... read more ). Some drugs (such as naltrexone, nalmefene, baclofen, or acamprosate) help by reducing withdrawal symptoms and the craving for alcohol. Disulfiram helps because it causes unpleasant symptoms (such as flushing) when people take it and then drink alcohol. However, disulfiram has not been shown to promote abstinence and consequently is recommended only for certain people.

Treatment of symptoms and complications

Doctors treat the problems caused by alcohol-related liver disease and the withdrawal symptoms that develop after people stop drinking.

A nutritious diet and vitamin supplements (especially B vitamins) are important during the first few days of abstinence. They can help correct nutritional deficiencies that can cause complications such as weakness, shaking, loss of sensation and strength, anemia, and Wernicke encephalopathy Wernicke Encephalopathy Wernicke encephalopathy is a brain disorder that causes confusion, eye problems, and loss of balance and results from thiamin deficiency. Wernicke encephalopathy is caused by a severe deficiency... read more . Supplements can also improve general health. Often, if inflammation is severe, people are hospitalized and may need to be fed through a tube to receive adequate nutrition.

Treatments for liver damage

Abstinence is tried first. Several drugs, including some antioxidants (such as S-adenosyl-L-methionine, phosphatidylcholine, and metadoxine) and drugs to reduce inflammation, may be useful, but further study is needed. Many nutritional supplements that are antioxidants, such as milk thistle and vitamins A and E, have been tried but are ineffective.

Corticosteroids can help relieve severe liver inflammation and are safe to use if people do not have an infection, bleeding in the digestive tract, kidney failure, or pancreatitis.

Liver transplantation Liver Transplantation Liver transplantation is the surgical removal of a healthy liver or sometimes a part of a liver from a living person and then its transfer into a person whose liver no longer functions. (See... read more may be done if the damage is severe. Transplantation enables people to live longer. However, because about half the people start drinking again after transplantation, most transplantation programs require that people be abstinent for 6 months to qualify.

More Information

The following are some English-language resources that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.

  • Alcoholics Anonymous: An international fellowship of people with a drinking problem who rely on a 12-step program to support each other in overcoming the obsession to drink.

  • American Liver Foundation: Hosts community education programs that give an overview of all aspects of liver disease and wellness. Also provides support groups, information on finding a physician, and opportunities to participate in clinical trials.

  • Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation: Provider of outpatient and residential substance use and addiction recovery programs.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
CAMPRAL
REVIA
ANTABUSE
LIORESAL
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