Alcoholic Liver Diseases: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

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Alcoholic Liver Diseases: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

The liver is a vital organ in the body, performing more than 500 functions. While moderate consumption of alcohol may have no adverse effect on a  healthy person’s liver, drinking in uncontrolled quantities daily could contribute to liver disease.

Since the liver’s functions include filtering toxins that could otherwise go straight to the blood and affect blood sugar, hormone production, and energy storage, the failure of this organ could destabilize the body and even lead to death.

Facts about Alcohol and the Liver

The liver performs lots of functions in the body – over 500 activities – and so it is a vital organ in the body. Regular checked consumption of alcohol has no adverse effect on the liver, but drinking in uncontrolled amounts and on a daily basis could expose it to liver disease. Among the liver’s functions are filtering toxins that could otherwise go straight to the blood, regulating blood sugar, making hormones, and storing energy among others. Therefore, the collapse of this system could destabilize the body and even lead to death.

  • Alcoholic liver disease was noted to be the third-most common reason for liver transplants in 2015, after hepatitis C and liver cancer.
  • When people are diagnosed with liver disease, abstaining from alcohol may prevent further damage.
  • Lifestyle changes, surgery, and medication are among the treatment options for alcoholic liver disease.
  • By the time many people are diagnosed, liver disease is likely to have spread and damaged the liver extensively.
  • Symptoms of addiction and liver disease may include uncontrollable tremors and jaundice.
  • One alcoholic drink a day for women and no more than two for men is the recommended daily limit.

Early Signs and Symptoms

About 90 percent of the alcohol that people consume is processed by the liver while the rest leaves the body through sweat, saliva, and urine. It takes the liver about an hour to process one alcoholic beverage, a time frame that is increased by the amount of blood sugar content in the body. Since the liver may only process so much alcohol at a time, unprocessed alcohol enters the bloodstream, where it may affect the brain and the heart.

Since the liver is skilled at repairing itself rapidly, by the time severe liver disease symptoms appear, the damage may be well beyond repair. The early symptoms are not obvious, so you may not know you have liver disease. But, there are general symptoms.

Here are some general symptoms of liver disease:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Tremors and fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Itchy skin
  • Discolored stool
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Unusual bruising
  • Excessive curving of the fingernails
  • Excessive weight loss and wasting of muscles
  • Increased sensitivity to alcohol and drugs

Unfortunately, early signs of liver disease may easily be mistaken for other ailments, such as stomach flu. Both conditions may produce stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea.

When individuals with liver disease drink heavily, intoxication may occur sooner and their hangovers may last longer. These symptoms occur because their livers are not able to filter as many toxins as they could before. If the condition goes untreated until severe symptoms develop, it may be too late.

Heavy drinkers also expose themselves to fatty liver disease. This condition may progress to liver inflammation and cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), which may be fatal.

Treatment for Alcoholic Liver Disease

People who drink heavily – essentially more than two drinks a day on average for men, one for women – are at risk for some form of liver damage.

The most effective treatment for the condition is staying away from alcohol.

  • Abstinence: It takes a while for the liver to fully get damaged, and so symptoms for fatty liver disease can be reversed within 2 to 6 weeks of abstinence from alcohol. The hard part for drinkers is that they have to totally abstain from the habit if they are diagnosed with the condition – fatty liver disease – and never resume drinking as that would reverse the remission. Heavy drinkers will naturally have a hard time letting go of the habit – the same way drug addicts suffer and so it is wise to get help and reduce intake gradually. Basically, those who drink above the allowed daily limits will have a hard time kicking the habit and going cold turkey could cause more harm than good.
  • Lifestyle Changes: It has been noted that some lifestyle changes could help those dealing with alcoholic liver disease – such as quitting smoking and losing weight – would help ease the symptoms of the disease. Making multivitamins part of your daily diet helps too.
  • Medication: If liver disease is at an advanced level and you finally seek medical attention, the doctor is likely to administer corticosteroids or pentoxifylline for the inflammation. Probiotics antibiotics, stem cell therapy and medication that targets inflammation have also been noted to work well in treating liver disease.
  • Liver Transplant: If the liver disease has advanced to a level where the liver is severely damaged, the only option left is to seek a liver transfer. A transplant is only recommended for those who can abstain from alcohol for at least six months before surgery and whose organs are healthy enough to withstand the procedure. The procedure will also depend on the availability of a donor and soon after surgery. After the surgery, anti-rejection medication administered could expose the recipient to some forms of cancer and other infections. So, overall, it is a risky operation and usually the last resort.

Outlook for People with Liver Disease

Advanced liver disease may shorten a person’s life expectancy dramatically. People with advanced cirrhosis who do not receive liver transplants might only live for six months to two years. If people’s conditions are less severe and they receive effective treatment, they may live longer lives.

Quitting drinking and smoking, losing weight, and managing any other diseases are good ways to boost life expectancy.

Main Stages of Alcoholic Liver Disease

Four main stages are:

Alcoholic fatty liver disease

Drinking heavily for even a week may cause fatty liver disease, but it is reversible at this stage if drinkers abstain from alcohol thereafter. Unfortunately, there are no symptoms at this stage, so people may not know that they are endangering their system.

Alcoholic hepatitis

People who drink heavily for many years may experience swelling and inflammation of the liver, which may lead to hepatitis. If drinking continues, it may cause liver damage and death. Abstaining from alcohol from this point may reverse this condition.


If people are unable to quit drinking even after the first two stages, collagen and other proteins may start building in their livers, causing scarring or fibrosis. Mild to moderate fibrosis may be reversible, but severe cases are not.


This last stage of liver damage is irreversible. Severe inflammation has damaged the liver so much that it cannot perform any of its functions, resulting in liver failure. People with this condition may prevent any further damage to the liver by abstaining from alcohol but may also need liver transplants to live.

Prevent Alcoholic Liver Disease

How do people prevent alcoholic liver disease? By following the stipulated guidelines for alcohol – no more than one drink a day for women and two for men:

  • Beer, at 5 percent alcohol content, should be limited to 12 ounces
  • Wine, at 12 percent, to 5 ounces
  • Spirits (liquor), at 40 percent, to 1.5 ounces

Heavy drinking is anything that exceeds those amounts. Binge drinking, which is a serious and dangerous condition, occurs when a man consumes five or more drinks in one two-hour period or a woman four drinks in the same time period.

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Risk Factors of Alcoholic Liver Disease

Experts have found that:

  • People who consume hard alcohol or spirits are more susceptible to liver disease than people who prefer wine.
  • Men who drink more than three drinks a day and women who drink more than two drinks a day for five years are more likely to experience liver disease.
  • Women process alcohol more slowly than men and are more susceptible to liver disease than men.
  • People who have hepatitis C have a higher risk of developing alcoholic liver disease and liver cancer.

Not all heavy drinkers develop liver disease. Acetaldehyde, a toxin produced when the body breaks down alcohol, affects some people more adversely than others, though scientists are not exactly sure why.

Treatment for Alcoholism

There are several stages of alcoholism and several ways to fight it:

  • DIY: Do-it-yourself is one approach to alcoholic recovery. If you are not too deep into alcoholism, you may to try to stop drinking slowly without expert assistance, although stopping alcohol may be dangerous, so consider finding professional help.
  • Counseling: Sharing the problem with a qualified people may help drinkers slowly ease away from drinking and examine their habits. Regular counseling sessions may keep people focused.
  • New activities. Taking up new hobbies keeps people busy and distracts them from using alcohol or drugs.
  • Treating underlying problems: Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues may be underlying problems that led people to start drinking, maybe as attempts at self-medication. If these co-occurring issues are both treated, long-lasting recoveries are more likely.
  • Detox: Seek detox (detoxification) help from a qualified rehab facility that will help remove alcohol safely from your body, either through a gradual tapering or through medication. If you are a heavy drinker, do not try to go cold turkey and stop drinking completely on your own. This may be fatal.

Help is available. All you have to do is ask. There are alcohol rehab centers that may assist you in overcoming your drinking problem before it is too late.

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance use disorder, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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