Alcohol Liver Disease: Conditions, Symptoms, Liver Repair & Treatment

Written by Jonathan Strum

& Medically Reviewed by Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN

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Last Updated - 8/15/2020

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Updated 08/15/2020

Some alcohol-related liver problems are temporary, others are permanent and can be fatal. Understanding how alcohol affects the liver can help you avoid permanent damage.

Alcohol use can lead to many different medical concerns, but one of the most common conditions caused by long-term alcohol use is liver disease. Some liver problems caused by alcohol are temporary, completely resolving on their own if alcohol use is stopped. However, others are permanent conditions that can lead to fatal outcomes.

Liver Disease From Alcohol

Four out of five deaths from liver disease are caused by alcohol. Alcohol is processed by the liver, and drinking alcohol puts strain on it. This stress causes fat to build up in the liver over time, which eventually affects how the liver heals and causes liver inflammation. Chronic inflammation leads to the buildup of scar tissue, which reduces liver function. If enough of a healthy liver converts into scar tissue, it can ultimately lead to liver failure.

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What Are the First Signs of Liver Damage From Alcohol?

Liver damage caused by alcohol use is not obvious until it is serious. Early liver damage will not cause noticeable symptoms. The first symptoms that do occur are normally very general, and it can be difficult to determine that they specifically indicate liver problems. Early signs of liver damage can include:

  • Pain in the upper-right abdomen
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Decreased appetite

How Much Alcohol Does It Take To Damage Your Liver?

The liver is the organ responsible for breaking down alcohol, so any amount of alcohol will ultimately put some form of strain on your liver. However, it usually takes a heavy amount of alcohol use to damage your liver.

Research shows that it typically takes at least 100 liters (26.4 gallons) of pure alcohol to cause permanent liver damage. This corresponds to 30 grams, or about two drinks, every day for 10 years.

An intake of 80 grams, or just under six drinks, every day for 10 years is linked to an almost 100% chance of liver damage. It is important to note that these measurements are based on a 10-year period, and drinking less alcohol over a longer time frame can carry the same risks.

Alcohol Liver Disease Symptoms

When the liver is damaged, it is unable to perform its normal functions. The liver plays a role in blood clotting, protein production, breakdown of toxic chemicals and production of energy. Some of the main symptoms of liver damage include:

  • Decreased energy
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Swelling in the legs or abdomen
  • Increased bleeding or bruising
  • Weight loss and decreased appetite

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease, also called hepatic steatosis, is the first of the three types of liver disease that can occur in heavy alcohol users. With alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcohol damages liver cells and causes fat to accumulate in the liver. This affects how the liver normally functions and leads to the next form of alcoholic liver disease. Fatty liver disease can also occur without alcohol use; one out of four people develop it for reasons unrelated to alcohol. Fatty liver disease can be diagnosed through imaging, biopsy and blood tests.

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Symptoms

Alcoholic fatty liver disease typically does not cause any symptoms. However, this does not mean that it is not a serious condition. It can lead to other liver problems that make severe, life-threatening symptoms a possibility. The only symptoms that could typically occur with fatty liver disease are tiredness and pain in the upper-right abdomen.

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Treatment

Alcoholic fatty liver disease is reversible and can go away on its own if alcohol use is stopped. Treatment for alcoholic fatty liver disease primarily focuses on stopping alcohol use and allowing the body to heal itself. Losing weight is also helpful to reduce the amount of fat in the liver, but it is far more effective when alcohol use is stopped.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis is liver inflammation caused by alcohol use. It occurs due to alcohol’s numerous effects on the liver, and it normally follows fatty liver disease. The fatty accumulations in the liver can lead to inflammation and impair the liver’s ability to reduce inflammation. Alcoholic hepatitis is diagnosed through blood work, imaging and potentially a liver biopsy.

Alcoholic Hepatitis Symptoms

Alcoholic hepatitis symptoms may include:

  • Enlarged liver
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Fluid accumulating in the abdomen
  • Fever
  • Bleeding in the intestinal tract
  • Malnutrition
  • Bleeding in the esophagus
  • Abdominal pain

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Alcohol Liver Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is the most serious liver problem that alcohol can cause, and it is the only type of alcoholic liver damage that is permanent. After fatty deposits build up and cause inflammation, the inflammation ultimately causes liver scarring. Cirrhosis is the term for this scarring of the liver, and it causes the liver to not function in the areas that are scarred. Cirrhosis is diagnosed by blood tests, imaging and liver biopsies.

Symptoms of Cirrhosis of the Liver From Alcohol

Cirrhosis symptoms are similar to those of hepatitis but are permanent and more severe. Symptoms of cirrhosis include:

  • Bruising easily
  • Bleeding
  • Swelling in the abdomen or legs
  • Enlarged veins in the esophagus or stomach that can suddenly bleed heavily
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Kidney failure
  • Severe itching
  • Buildup of toxins that cause mental changes
  • Gallstones

Alcohol Liver Cirrhosis Treatment

Unlike fatty liver disease and hepatitis, cirrhosis will not go away on its own. Once scar tissue has formed in the liver, it will always affect liver function. Treatment typically involves treating the symptoms of alcoholic cirrhosis, as there is no way to improve the liver itself. Quitting alcohol is important, as continued alcohol use will worsen cirrhosis. The only way to improve liver function is with a liver transplant, but it can be difficult to receive one.

Liver Failure From Alcohol

Liver failure occurs when the liver is not able to perform its normal functions. Liver failure from alcohol does not typically occur with fatty liver disease, but it certainly can with alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis.

Liver failure is always a medical emergency, but it can be reversible when it’s caused by hepatitis or inflammation. However, liver failure due to cirrhosis is normally permanent and leads to long-term health problems that often result in death.

How To Repair Liver Damage From Alcohol

Liver damage caused by alcohol use can only be repaired if it is caught early enough. Fatty liver disease and hepatitis caused by alcohol will typically be repaired naturally by the body, but only if alcohol use is stopped. Treatment can also help reduce the symptoms caused by liver damage. Ultimately, the only way to heal your liver is to go through a prolonged period of sobriety that allows your liver to recover.

There is no way to repair liver damage caused by alcoholic cirrhosis. Quitting alcohol is essential, as the damage will continue to worsen with more alcohol use, but abstinence will not improve liver function. The only possible way to overcome the effects of cirrhosis is with a liver transplant. However, liver transplant recipients are often required to demonstrate a prolonged period of sobriety before being eligible to receive a new liver.

How Long To Abstain From Alcohol to Repair Liver

If the liver is not permanently damaged, avoiding alcohol for a relatively short period can significantly benefit liver health. Two to four weeks of abstinence can lead to decreased levels of inflammation with hepatitis. Four weeks of abstinence is enough to cause liver-related blood tests to return to normal in those who have fatty liver disease.

What if I Can’t Quit Drinking?

Nearly 15 million Americans struggled with alcohol addiction in 2019. It’s likely that a large number of them are currently experiencing liver-related concerns or will sometime in the future. Some may be well aware of alcohol’s impact on the liver, but their addiction prevents them from being able to quit.

A person who can’t stop drinking despite the development of liver damage should seek professional help. Many struggle to stop using alcohol, but there is a wide range of resources available that can help people recover from addiction.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Alcohol addiction treatment normally begins with detox — the process in which the body adjusts to the absence of alcohol. Afterward, rehab teaches people how to cope without alcohol and maintain the sobriety achieved through detox. These treatments can take place in an inpatient or outpatient setting, depending on the severity of the client’s addiction. It’s important to speak with your doctor or reach out to a professional rehab facility to discuss which treatment approach may be most effective for your situation.

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction, The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health can help. Contact us today to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment programs that can lead you to a healthier, alcohol-free life in recovery.

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