The liver helps to process and eliminate alcohol from the body. Excessive drinking, however, damages the liver and interferes with the liver’s ability to ‘detoxify’ the system. Over time, there are three common types of alcohol-related liver problems that can develop as a result of excessive drinking. These are:
- fatty liver
- alcoholic hepatitis
- alcoholic cirrhosis
Each of these conditions is a specific medical illness in itself, but each is also part of an alcohol-related and progressive liver disease process.
Fatty liver disease
More than 15 million people in the U.S. abuse or overuse alcohol. Almost all of them – 90%-100% – develop fatty livers. Fatty liver can occur after drinking moderate or large amounts of alcohol. It can even occur after a short period of heavy drinking.
Fatty liver disease is often silent, producing no symptoms, especially in the beginning. If the disease advances – which is usually over a period of years, or even decades – it can cause vague problems such as:
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Confusion, impaired judgment, or trouble concentrating
Symptoms may worsen after periods of heavy drinking.
If alcohol use continues at the stage of fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis may develop. Alcoholic hepatitis is the second illness on the continuum of alcohol-induced liver disease and is considered to be a significantly more serious condition. Alcoholic hepatitis does have distinctive and detectable symptoms. These can include:
- abdominal pain
- abdominal tenderness
- stomach distress
- loss of appetite
This condition ranges in severity from mild to life-threatening. For some with mild alcoholic hepatitis, the illness may persist for years. The damage from mild alcoholic hepatitis can often be reversed with abstinence from alcohol. Some may abruptly develop a type of alcoholic hepatitis that is life-threatening, especially after binge drinking. All cases of alcoholic hepatitis may cause progressive liver damage. Not all such damage can be reversed. Continued use of alcohol can lead to cirrhosis of the liver.
The third alcohol-related liver condition is alcoholic cirrhosis. This is the most severe type of alcohol-induced liver disease. Cirrhosis occurs when the liver becomes scarred by the chronic use of alcohol. This condition is not reversible, but may be stabilized by abstinence from alcohol. Alcoholic cirrhosis is considered to be a severe and life-threatening illness. Some of the symptoms of cirrhosis are:
- poor appetite
- abdominal swelling
- swollen extremities
- ‘spider veins’ (broken blood vessels) on upper body
- discolored urine
- discolored stool
Treatment for all stages of alcohol-induced liver disease begins with abstinence from alcohol use. Many will require the support of addiction treatment to stop use and so must start there. Additionally, nutrition plays a large role in managing these conditions. Some dietary restrictions may be suggested as well as dietary supplements. Vaccinations may be recommended as well to prevent other health-related conditions that would further compromise the liver. In the most severe cases a liver transplant is required.