Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease

What is alcohol-induced liver disease?

Alcohol-induced liver disease is caused by drinking too much alcohol. It is a common, but preventable, disease.

There are three primary types of alcohol-induced liver disease, including the following:

  • Fatty liver. Fatty liver is excessive buildup of fat inside the liver cells. Fatty liver is the most common alcohol-induced liver disorder. The liver is enlarged, causing upper abdominal discomfort on the right side.

  • Alcoholic hepatitis. Alcoholic hepatitis is an acute inflammation of the liver. It is accompanied by the destruction of individual liver cells and frequently followed by permanent scarring. Symptoms may include fever, jaundice, weakness, right-sided abdominal pain, and nausea. The white blood count is elevated, and the liver is enlarged and tender.

  • Alcoholic cirrhosis. Alcoholic cirrhosis is the destruction of normal liver tissue, leaving nonfunctioning scar tissue. Symptoms and signs, in addition to those of alcoholic hepatitis, include portal hypertension (increased resistance to blood flow through the liver), enlarged spleen, ascites (fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity), kidney failure, confusion, and liver cancer.

What are the symptoms of alcohol-induced liver disease?

The effects of alcohol on the liver depend on how much and how long a person has been drinking alcohol. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. The following are the most common symptoms and signs of alcohol-induced liver disease:

  • Enlarged liver

  • Fever

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

  • Increased white blood cell count

  • Spider-like veins in the skin

  • Portal hypertension

  • Enlarged spleen

  • Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdominal cavity)

  • Kidney failure

  • Confusion

The symptoms of alcohol-induced liver disease may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is alcohol-induced liver disease diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, diagnostic procedures for alcohol-induced liver disease may include the following:

  • Lab tests.

  • Liver function tests. A series of special blood tests to determine if the liver is working properly.

  • Liver biopsy. This procedure involves removing tissue samples from the liver (with a needle or during surgery) for examination under a microscope.

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan. This diagnostic imaging procedure uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI is a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radio frequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body. The person lies on a bed that moves into the cylindrical MRI machine. The machine takes a series of pictures of the inside of the body using a magnetic field and radio waves. The computer enhances the pictures produced. The test is painless, and doesn't involve exposure to radiation. Because the MRI machine is like a tunnel, some people are claustrophobic or unable to hold still during the test, and may be given a sedative to help them relax. Metal objects can't be present in the MRI room, so people with pacemakers or metal clips or rods inside the body can't have this test done. All jewelry must be removed before the procedure.

What is the treatment for alcohol-induced liver disease?

Specific treatment for alcohol-induced liver disease will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

The goal of treatment is to restore some or all normal functioning to the liver. Treatment usually begins with abstinence from alcohol. The liver has great restorative power and is often able to repair some of the damage caused by alcohol. The scarring from cirrhosis is not reversible, and when liver tissue loss is severe enough to cause liver failure, most of the damage may be irreversible.  In some cases, liver transplant may be considered.