Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease
What is alcohol-induced liver disease?
Alcohol-induced liver disease is common, but can be prevented. There are 3 types.
Many heavy drinkers progress through these 3 types over time:
- Fatty liver. Fatty liver is the build-up of fat inside the liver cells. It leads to an enlarged
liver. It’s the most common alcohol-induced liver problem.
- Alcoholic hepatitis. Alcoholic hepatitis is an acute inflammation of the liver. There is death of liver
cells, often followed by permanent scarring.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis. Alcoholic cirrhosis is the destruction of normal liver tissue. It leaves scar tissue
in place of the working liver tissue.
The liver is a large organ that sits up under the ribs on the right side of the belly
(abdomen). The liver:
- Helps filter waste from the body
- Makes bile to help digest food
- Stores sugar that the body uses for energy
- Makes proteins that work in many places in the body, for example, proteins that cause
blood to clot
What causes alcohol-induced liver disease?
Alcohol-induced liver disease is caused by heavy use of alcohol. The liver’s job is
to break down alcohol. If you drink more than it can process, it can become badly
Fatty liver can happen in anyone who drinks a lot. Alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic
cirrhosis are linked to the long-term alcohol abuse seen in alcoholics.
Healthcare providers don’t know why some people who drink alcohol get liver disease
while others do not. Research suggests there may be a genetic link, but this is not
What are the symptoms of alcohol-induced liver disease?
The effects of alcohol on the liver depend on how much and how long you have been
drinking alcohol. These are the most common symptoms and signs:
- Often causes no symptoms
- Build-up of fat inside the liver cells enlarges the liver, causing upper abdominal
(belly) discomfort on the right side
- Tiredness and weakness
- Weight loss
- Pain over the liver
- Nausea and vomiting
- Appetite loss
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
Alcoholic cirrhosis, all of the symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis and
- Portal hypertension (increased resistance to blood flow through the liver)
- Enlarged spleen
- Poor nutrition
- Bleeding in the intestines
- Ascites (fluid build-up in the belly)
- Kidney failure
- Liver cancer
The symptoms of alcohol-induced liver disease may look like other health problems.
Always see a doctor for a diagnosis.
How is alcohol-induced liver disease diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will do a complete health history and physical exam. Other
tests used to diagnose alcohol-induced liver disease may include:
- Blood tests. Including liver function tests, which show whether the liver is working the way it
- Liver biopsy. This involves removing small tissue samples from the liver with a needle or during
surgery. These samples are checked under a microscope to find out the type of liver
- Ultrasound. This test uses high frequency sound waves to create a picture of the organs.
- CT scan. This imaging test uses X-rays and a computer to produce 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.
- MRI. MRI uses a magnetic field, radio frequency pulses, and a computer to make detailed
pictures of internal body structures. Sometimes injecting dye into a vein is used
to produce images of body parts. The dye helps show the liver and other organs in
the abdomen (belly).
How is alcohol-induced liver disease treated?
The goal of treatment is to restore some or all normal functioning to the liver.
You must completely stop drinking alcohol. This may involve an alcohol treatment program.
Sometimes diet changes are advised, too. The liver is often able to fix some of the
damage caused by alcohol so you can live a normal life. The scarring from cirrhosis
is sometimes partially reversible, and when liver tissue loss is severe enough to
cause liver failure, most of the damage may be permanent. However, the damage won't
have any chance of reversing if you continue to drink alcohol.
Different treatments are needed for different complications and symptoms of alcoholic
liver disease. For example, dietary changes, vitamins, salt restriction, procedures
to shrink swollen veins in the digestive tract, water pills (diuretics), medicines
to treat confusion, and anti-inflammatory medicines.
In some cases, a liver transplant may be considered. But you must complete a rehab
program and go through alcohol detox before this is even an option.
What are the complications of alcohol-induced liver disease?
About 30% of people with alcohol-induced liver disease have hepatitis C virus. Others
have hepatitis B virus. Your provider will test you for both and treat you if needed.
People with alcohol-induced liver disease are also at greater risk for liver cancer.
About 50% have gallstones.
Those with cirrhosis often develop kidney problems, intestinal bleeding, fluid in
the belly, confusion, liver cancer, and severe infections.
- Alcohol-induced liver disease is a common, but preventable, disease.
- Alcohol-induced liver disease is caused by heavy use of alcohol. The liver breaks
down alcohol. If you drink more than it can process, it can become seriously damaged.
- The effects of alcohol on the liver depend on how much and how long you have been
- The most important part of treatment is to completely stop drinking alcohol. Sometimes
diet changes are advised, too.
- The liver is often able to repair some of the damage caused by alcohol so that you
can live a normal life. In some cases, liver transplant may be considered. But you
must complete a rehab program and go through alcohol detox before this is even an
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also
know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.