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Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease

Your risk for developing alcohol-induced liver disease increases with the frequency and amount of alcohol you drink. Nearly 20,000 people die from alcohol-induced liver disease every year in the United States. 

The Stages of Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease

Alcohol-induced liver disease occurs in three stages of increasing severity. It’s important to note that not everyone who drinks, even those who drink heavily, will progress from one stage to the next.

  • Fatty Liver: Drinking heavily can cause fat to collect in the liver.  Many times you won’t experience any symptoms, but you may have a loss of appetite, pain in your abdomen, and nausea. A fatty liver is reversible if you stop drinking.
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis: Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammation of your liver, which can happen if you drink heavily for many years. It’s usually reversible if you abstain from alcohol for weeks, months or years. Symptoms include pain and tenderness in the abdomen, jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes), tiredness, nausea, and a general unwell feeling.
  • Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis is advanced liver disease, which happens after the liver has been inflamed for a long time. This inflammation leads to irreversible scarring, which keeps the liver from working efficiently to detoxify your blood, synthesize proteins, and produce the chemicals needed to digest food. Early-stage symptoms include tiredness, abdominal pain, weight loss, itchy skin, and loss of appetite. Late-stage symptoms include jaundice, hair loss, bruising, muscle cramps, vomiting, accelerated heart rate, confusion, and increased abdominal swelling.

Symptoms of Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease

The effects of alcohol on the liver depend on how much and how long you have been drinking alcohol. These are the most common symptoms and signs:

Fatty Liver

  • Often causes no symptoms.
  • A build-up of fat inside the liver cells enlarges the liver, causing upper abdominal (belly) discomfort on the right side.
  • Tiredness and weakness.
  • Weight loss.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

  • Pain over the liver.
  • Fever.
  • Weakness.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Appetite loss.
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice).

Alcoholic Cirrhosis

All of the symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis and:

  • Portal hypertension (increased resistance to blood flow through the liver).
  • Enlarged spleen.
  • Poor nutrition.
  • Bleeding in the intestines.
  • Ascites (fluid build-up in the belly).
  • Kidney failure.
  • Confusion.
  • Liver cancer.

The symptoms of alcohol-induced liver disease may look like other health problems. Always see a doctor for a diagnosis.

Treating Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease

The first step in treating alcohol-induced liver disease is to abstain from drinking. Abstaining can help reverse the damage to your liver, if the disease is in the early stages, and prevent future damage. Quitting drinking on your own can be hard, so your doctor may recommend counseling and support groups to help.

Your doctor may also treat related problems common to people with alcohol-induced liver disease, such as malnutrition. You may also be given medications such as corticosteroids to reduce liver inflammation.

If you think you may be drinking too much, talk to your doctor to develop a plan to reduce your consumption and your risks.

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