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Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

(Alcoholic Liver Disease; Alcohol-Associated Liver Disease)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2023
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Topic Resources

What is your liver?

Your liver is a football-sized organ on the right side of your belly, just below your ribs. It has many important jobs:

  • To make a liquid (bile) that helps your body digest fat

  • To process nutrients from your digestive tract

  • To make proteins that help your blood clot

  • To help break down drugs and poisons so your body can get rid of them

The Digestive System

The Digestive System

What is alcohol-related liver disease?

Alcohol-related liver disease is liver damage caused by drinking too much alcohol for a long time.

  • The more alcohol you drink and the more often you drink, the greater the risk of liver damage

  • You won't have any symptoms at first, but later you may feel tired or have yellow skin (jaundice) or a swollen abdomen

  • Symptoms can become severe and life-threatening, such as bleeding internally and having problems with your brain

  • If you have been drinking too much alcohol and have symptoms of liver disease, doctors will do blood tests

  • The main treatment for alcohol-related liver disease is to stop drinking alcohol

What causes alcohol-related liver disease?

Alcohol breaks down in your liver into substances that can damage your liver. The more alcohol you drink, the more your liver can be damaged.

You're at risk of alcohol-related liver disease if you have more than 3 drinks a day for about 10 years. You're at risk of cirrhosis Cirrhosis of the Liver Your liver is a football-sized organ on the right side of your belly, just below your ribs. It has many important jobs: To make a liquid (bile) that helps your body digest fat To process nutrients... read more Cirrhosis of the Liver if you have more than 6 drinks a day for about 10 years.

For a given amount of drinking, you’re more likely to develop alcohol-related liver disease if you:

What types of liver damage are caused by drinking alcohol?

Drinking too much alcohol can cause 3 types of liver damage, which often happen in this order:

Buildup of fat in the liver (fatty liver)

  • Almost everyone who drinks too much alcohol gets fatty liver

  • Fatty liver usually goes away if you stop drinking

Inflammation of the liver (alcoholic hepatitis)

  • In some people the liver gets inflamed

  • The inflamed liver doesn't work normally

  • Inflammation usually goes away if you stop drinking, but your liver may have some permanent damage

Scar tissue replaces normal liver tissue (cirrhosis)

  • The more scar tissue you have, the harder the remaining normal liver tissue has to work

  • When enough scar tissue builds up, your liver shrinks and doesn’t work normally

  • Scar tissue never goes away, even if you stop drinking

What are the symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease?

Fatty liver disease often causes no symptoms.

Alcoholic hepatitis usually causes:

  • Fever

  • Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)

  • A painful, swollen liver

  • Weak, tired feeling

However, sometimes alcoholic hepatitis makes you very sick.

Cirrhosis causes many serious health problems, including:

  • Swollen belly

  • Sleepiness and confusion due to problems with your brain

  • Throwing up blood

  • Bloody or dark, tarry stool (poop)

  • Bleeding and bruising more easily

  • Higher risk of liver cancer

What other symptoms does heavy alcohol use cause?

Heavy use of alcohol can also cause other serious health problems, including:

How can doctors tell if I have alcohol-related liver disease?

Doctors will ask you or your family members about how much alcohol you drink. Doctors will suspect alcohol-related liver disease if you drink a lot of alcohol.

Doctors will also do tests, such as:

You usually won't need other tests unless doctors aren't sure whether your liver disease is caused by alcohol or something else. Other tests may include:

  • Ultrasound (using sound waves to take a picture of the insides of your body)

  • Liver biopsy (using a needle to take out a small piece of liver to look at under a microscope)

How do doctors treat alcohol-related liver disease?

The most important thing you can do is:

  • Stop drinking alcohol

It can be hard to stop drinking alcohol. Some things that help include going to a rehabilitation program, joining a support group, and talking to a counselor. Your doctor may prescribe medicine that helps reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Other treatments can include:

  • Eating food and vitamins that are good for you

  • Taking medicine called corticosteroids to reduce any liver inflammation

If your liver is very bad and barely working, you may need a liver transplant 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 . With a transplant, doctors do surgery to replace your bad liver with a healthy one. Because alcohol will damage your new liver too, doctors usually do a transplant only if you have stopped drinking.

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