Excessive alcohol consumption can cause either short-term or progressive liver damage. Alcohol is a poison and if drunk in excess over the long term may cause three types of liver disease: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis.
Typically, alcoholic liver disease progresses as follows. Over a number of years, most heavy drinkers develop a fatty liver, in which fat globules develop within liver cells. If alcohol consumption continues, hepatitis or inflammation of the liver develops. With continued drinking, cirrhosis or scarring develops. In this condition, liver cells that are damaged by alcohol are replaced by fibrous scar tissue. If cirrhosis has developed, liver damage is irreversible.
Fatty liver often disappears after 3-6 months of abstinence from alcohol. Some people with alcoholic hepatitis who stop drinking recover completely. However, in most cases damage to the liver is irreversible, and the condition progresses to cirrhosis. Severe alcoholic cirrhosis can cause a number of serious complications, which in some cases may be fatal.
Symptoms of Alcoholic Liver Disease
In many cases, fatty liver does not cause symptoms and often remains undiagnosed. However, in about 1 in 3 affected people, the liver becomes enlarged, which may lead to discomfort in the right upper abdomen.
Alcoholic hepatitis also may not produce liver symptoms, but after about 10 years of heaw drinking in men, and sooner in women, the first symptoms usually develop.
People with alcohol-related liver disease who have no other serious health problems and have stopped drinking may be candidates for a liver transplant.
These may include:
- nausea and occasional vomiting
- discomfort in the upper right side of the abdomen
- weight loss
- yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)
- swollen abdomen.
Cirrhosis may often cause no symptoms for a number of years or only mild symptoms, including:
- poor appetite and weight loss
- muscle wasting.
In some cases, severe cirrhosis may lead to a serious condition is which there is bleeding into the digestive tract from varicose veins that develop in the wall of the oesophagus. Severe alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis can lead to liver failure, which may result in coma and death.
Many of the symptoms and some of the complications of alcohol-related liver disease can be treated with some success. For example, swelling of the abdomen, which results from fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity, may be decreased by diuretic drugs and a diet that is low in salt. Nausea can frequently be relieved by anti-emetic drugs.
Treatment of Alcoholic Liver Disease
People with alcohol-related liver disease must stop drinking completely and forever. Many
people need professional help to achieve this.
If drinking continues, the disease will probably progress and may be fatal. If drinking stops, the outcome is likely to improve, except if cirrhosis is well-established.