Alcoholic Liver Disease

Alcoholic liver disease describes three different conditions that can affect the livers of individuals who engage in years of heavy alcohol consumption. These conditions are:

  • Fatty liver – This condition is usually reversible if the patient abstains from alcohol use.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis – This is a type of alcohol-induced liver injury that, in severe cases, can lead to liver failure.
  • Liver cirrhosis – Cirrhosis of the liver occurs when healthy liver tissue becomes inflamed and is replaced by scarring, causing irreversible damage.

Causes of Alcoholic Liver Disease

Heavy alcohol consumption is the sole cause of alcoholic liver disease, though there are two ways drinking can lead to this condition:

  • Binge drinking – Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time can lead to fatty liver disease and, on occasion, alcoholic hepatitis.
  • Prolonged alcohol consumption – Drinking heavily for many years can lead to alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis, the more serious forms of alcoholic liver disease.

Symptoms of Alcoholic Liver Disease

One of the unfortunate hallmarks of alcoholic liver disease is that symptoms often don’t appear until severe damage has been done. However, some early symptoms can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • A general feeling of sickness

If the liver has suffered long-term, alcohol-related damage, symptoms can include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles and feet
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Itchy skin
  • Significant weight loss
  • Muscle wasting
  • Fever
  • Memory problems

Diagnosing Alcoholic Liver Disease

Alcoholic liver disease may be suspected in patients who are exhibiting symptoms and have a history of alcohol abuse. Blood tests can help determine liver function, and additional tests may be needed if alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis are suspected. These tests can include:

  • Imaging scans to look for scarring
  • A liver biopsy to determine the cause and degree of the scarring
  • An endoscopy to look for signs of cirrhosis

Treatments for Alcoholic Liver Disease

The first step in treating alcoholic liver disease is for the patient to make important lifestyle changes by stopping alcohol consumption, eating a healthy diet, taking supplements and getting vaccinated for a variety of diseases.

Other treatments can include:

  • The use of medications to help with fluid buildup, excess bleeding, mental confusion and infections
  • Endoscopic treatments for enlarged veins in the esophagus
  • Removal of fluid from the abdomen

The liver disease, hepatology and transplant experts at Tampa General Hospital work closely together to create individual treatment plans for patients. If alcoholic liver disease leads to end-stage liver disease, a liver transplant may be needed.