Alcoholic Liver Disease – Causes, Risks, Symptoms, Treatment

Alcoholic liver disease is the damage of the liver as a result of long term or excessive alcohol consumption. Eventually it may lead to liver failure. This condition will not occur in every person  who drinks excessively but the chances of developing this form of liver disease is higher in a person who drinks more than the recommended average per week.

Alcoholic liver disease starts of as liver inflammation (heptatitis, not to be confused with viral hepatitis A, B and so on). It then progresses to fatty liver disease and the final stage is cirrhosis.

Causes of Alcoholic Liver Disease

While this disease is caused by long term and excessive alcoholic consumption, it has been noted that it is less likely to occur in a man who drinks less than 28 units per week or women who drink less than 21 units per week yet are long term drinkers.

A pint of light beer is about 2 units, regular beer 4 units, a glass of wine is 1 unit and a tot of vodka or gin is one unit.

Heavy drinkers, especially alcoholics, tend to eat less or infrequently and this may lead to malnutrition which may speed up alcoholic liver disease.

Risks for Developing Alcoholic Liver Disease

  • Continuous drinkers are more at risk of developing alcoholic liver disease than binge drinkers.
  • Women who drink excessively may be more at risk than men due to a lower body weight.
  • ‘Moonshine’ (home brewed spirits) may be more toxic than commercially available alcohol.
  • Alcoholics who use pharmaceutical drugs, even paracetamol, are at a greater risk.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Jaundice (yellow discolouration of the skin and ‘white’ of the eyes).
  • Fever.
  • Fatigue (tiredness).
  • Abdominal pain and swelling (fluid accumulation known as ascites).
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Excessive thirst.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Nausea with or without vomiting (in severe cases there may be vomiting of the blood).
  • Mental faculties are affected in a number of ways.
  • Blood in the stool.
  • Changes in skin colour – lightening (hypopigmentation) or darkening (hyperpigmentation).

Alcoholic liver disease causes a wide range of symptoms as multiple systems are affected by this disease. Not all the signs and symptoms will be evident at the same time but will gradually develop as the condition progresses. Body swelling or abdominal swelling as a result of fluid accumulation and bleeding in the gut (bloody stool or vomiting blood) are usually signs of the end stage (cirrhosis).

Treatment of Alcoholic Liver Disease

The first step in managing alcoholic liver disease is to cease drinking alcohol altogether. In a case of alcohol abuse, a detox and rehabilitation program may be necessary. Cessation of drinking totally depends on the patient and if they are not willing to quit, then chances of successfully treating alcoholic liver disease are poor.

In severe alcoholic hepatitis, drugs like steroids and pentoxyfilline may be helpful.

In moderate cases, good nutrition and adopting a healthier lifestyle will allow the liver time to recover. Complete recovery may never be possible.

The final option is a liver transplant but this is expensive and dependent on finding a suitable donor.