Alcoholic liver disease is the collective term describing three different disorders: alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis. Together, they represent a progression of ongoing liver damage.
While even moderate drinkers can develop this disease, alcohol-related hepatitis occurs in people who drink heavily for long periods of time; alcoholic cirrhosis is a classic sign of the cumulative effects of chronic alcoholism.
Health effects of alcoholic liver disease vary according the specific disorder at work, as well as the severity of that disorder.
Alcohol and your liver
Alcohol is poisonous to human beings. To keep you alive when you drink and decrease the chances of harmful outcomes, your body takes alcohol circulating in your bloodstream and breaks it down inside your liver (a minor amount of processing also takes place in your stomach and small intestine). However, your liver can only process so much alcohol in any given period of time; in fact, in an hour, it can’t fully process the alcohol contained in even one standard drink (1.5 oz of 80 proof liquor, 5 oz of wine, 12 oz of beer). Any consumption level significantly above a drink an hour can temporarily degrade your liver function, and if enough alcohol enters your system in a short period of time, it can overwhelm your liver’s processing power, cause systemic damage in your body and kill you.
Apart from rapid-onset alcohol poisoning, your liver will accumulate damage over time from regular, heavy consumption of less-than-lethal amounts of alcohol. Generally speaking, the longer you maintain a heavy alcohol intake, the more damage your liver will sustain. If this pattern continues long enough, your liver tissue can start to die off and the organ as a whole can start to fail.
Basic effects of each disease
Alcoholic fatty liver disease occurs when acute (short-term) alcohol consumption-such as that associated with binge drinking-leads to an abnormal buildup of fat cells inside the liver. As stated previously, both moderate and heavy levels of consumption can trigger this disorder; however, the condition is almost universal in heavy drinkers. In many cases, people with alcoholic fatty liver disease have no specific symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they can include unexplained weight loss, weakness or general fatigue. Since these symptoms commonly appear in association with other health problems, the presence of fatty liver disease frequently goes undetected.
Alcoholic hepatitis occurs when long-term involvement in heavy drinking leads to liver inflammation and liver damage. According to the American Liver Foundation, roughly 35% of all heavy drinkers develop the disorder. Once liver inflammation sets in, its highly variable symptoms appear over a relatively short period of time. In milder cases, common problems include nausea, vomiting, fever, jaundice, appetite loss, weight loss, abdominal pain and abdominal distension (pressure-related enlargement). In severe cases, the disorder can trigger liver failure accompanied by mental confusion, loss of consciousness and coma, as well as death. In some circumstances, these severe problems develop rapidly and kill quickly.
Alcoholic cirrhosis occurs when chronic heavy drinking leads to hardening and scarring of previously soft, healthy liver tissue. Roughly 10-20 percent of alcoholics develop this condition. In most cases, people who develop alcoholic cirrhosis have previously experienced both alcoholic fatty liver disease and alcoholic hepatitis; however, significant numbers of people with the disorder never develop hepatitis, and a small minority never develop fatty liver disease. Potential consequences of the disorder include jaundice, a form of abdominal fluid buildup called ascites, a form of leg swelling called edema, bleeding from the vein that pulls blood from the liver, and liver failure that leads to mental confusion, loss of consciousness, coma, and in some cases, death. The highest risks for alcoholic cirrhosis occur in alcoholics who also have hepatitis C or any other non-alcohol-related chronic liver disease.
Additional potential effects
In addition to the yellowing associated with jaundice, other skin changes that can occur in advanced alcoholic liver disease include unusually light or dark general coloring, hand or foot redness and the appearance of red spider veins. In addition to confusion, mental changes that can occur include inability to concentrate or pay attention, impaired judgment, and impaired memory. Other potential advanced symptoms include bleeding gums, nosebleeds, bloody vomit, black or bloody stool, lightheadedness, abnormal breast growth in men, and numbness, tingling, or pain that appears in the upper or lower extremities.