Explore this section to learn more about the ways in which alcohol affects the liver and how alcohol-induced liver disease is diagnosed and treated.
The liver is the second largest organ in your body and is located under your rib cage on the right side. It weighs about three pounds and is shaped like a football that is flat on one side.
The liver performs many jobs in your body. It processes what you eat and drink into energy and nutrients your body can use. The liver also removes harmful substances from your blood.
Alcohol can damage or destroy liver cells.
The liver breaks down alcohol so it can be removed from your body. Your liver can become injured or seriously damaged if you drink more alcohol than it can process.
There are three main types of alcohol-related liver disease: fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and alcoholic cirrhosis.
Fatty liver disease
Fatty liver disease is the build up of extra fat in liver cells. It is the earliest stage of alcohol-related liver disease. There are usually no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they may include fatigue, weakness, and weight loss. Almost all heavy drinkers have fatty liver disease. However, if they stop drinking, fatty liver disease will usually go away.
Alcoholic hepatitis causes the liver to swell and become damaged. Symptoms may include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and jaundice. Up to 35 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis.
Alcoholic hepatitis can be mild or severe. If it is mild, liver damage may be reversed. If it is severe, it may occur suddenly and quickly lead to serious complications including liver failure and death.
Alcoholic cirrhosis is the scarring of the liver -- hard scar tissue replaces soft healthy tissue. It is the most serious type of alcohol-related liver disease. Symptoms of cirrhosis are similar to those of alcoholic hepatitis. Between 10 and 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis. The damage from cirrhosis cannot be reversed and can cause liver failure. Not drinking alcohol can help prevent further damage.
Many heavy drinkers will progress from fatty liver disease to alcoholic hepatitis to alcoholic cirrhosis over time. However, some heavy drinkers may develop cirrhosis without having alcoholic hepatitis first. Others may have alcoholic hepatitis but never have symptoms.
Heavy drinkers who also have a chronic liver disease such as hepatitis C are at high risk for developing cirrhosis.
Complications from alcohol-related liver disease usually occur after years of heavy drinking. The complications can be serious.
They may include:
Alcohol-related liver disease may be suspected based on medical conditions related to alcohol abuse. Blood tests may be used to rule out other liver diseases. Your doctor also may need to do a liver biopsy. During a biopsy, a small piece of liver tissue is removed and studied in the lab.
Treatment for alcohol-related liver disease requires a healthy diet including avoiding alcohol. Your doctor may suggest changes in your diet to help your liver recover from the alcohol-related damage. Treatment may require you to participate in an alcohol recovery program. Medications may be needed to manage the complications caused by your liver damage. In advance cases of alcoholic cirrhosis, a liver transplant may be needed. Those with alcohol-related liver disease need to stop drinking alcohol to be considered for a liver transplant.