Symptoms of alcoholic liver disease may vary depending on an individual’s liver function. The liver has more than 500 vital functions that it performs to keep the body running. When the liver becomes damaged, it can cause problems in other parts of the body.
Alcoholic liver disease symptoms can be split into two types: acute and post-acute symptoms. Acute symptoms can be tricky to identify because they are pretty general and can have many potential causes. Post-acute symptoms occur when the liver is not able to repair itself as quickly as excess alcohol consumption destroys it.
Acute symptoms of alcoholic liver disease include:
- stomach pain
- decreased appetite and weight loss
- fatigue and loss of energy
- nausea and vomiting
It can be easy to overlook these symptoms or blame them on another cause, such as the stomach flu or general discomfort. If acute symptoms are not adequately addressed, and the individual continues to consume alcohol, they can quickly lead to more advanced stages of the disease.
Post-acute symptoms of alcoholic liver disease include:
- fluid buildup in the legs (edema) or abdomen (ascites)
- yellow tint in the skin or eyes (jaundice)
- redness on the palms of hands
- bruising easily and abnormal bleeding
- confusion or problems concentrating
- pale or clay-colored stools
Less common post-acute symptoms can also include:
- fingernails with excessive curving (clubbing)
- extremely itchy skin
- blood in vomit and stools
- increased sensitivity to alcohol and other substances
It is typical for symptoms of alcoholic liver disease to come on slowly and usually worsen after periods of heavy drinking. Some individuals may spend years damaging their liver with alcohol and not feel any of the effects until it is too late and the damage becomes irreversible.
Types Of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease
Symptoms will change depending on the type of alcoholic liver disease someone is currently experiencing. Generally, there are four types of alcoholic liver disease, each representing a different stage of damage to the liver:
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease (steatosis): In this stage, extra fat begins to build up around the liver. Heavy drinking damages liver cells, making them less functional and unable to break down excess fat. Usually, if someone ceases drinking alcohol, alcohol-related fatty liver is reversible.
- Acute alcoholic hepatitis: During this stage, chronic alcohol abuse causes the liver to become inflamed and swollen. Acute alcoholic hepatitis can develop after four or more drinks in women and five or more drinks in men (binge drinking). Depending on the extent of the damage, this condition may or may not be reversible.
- Alcoholic liver fibrosis: At this stage, certain types of proteins begin to compile in the liver, including collagen. Mild to moderate cases of fibrosis may be reversible, but continuous fibrosis and inflammation can lead to liver scarring and potentially liver cancer.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis: This is considered the most advanced stage of alcoholic liver disease. Once someone hits this stage, the liver has been permanently scarred by alcohol abuse and, if left untreated, this condition can lead to liver failure.
What Causes Alcoholic Liver Disease?
When an individual consumes alcohol, it passes through the digestive system and is metabolized, or broken down by the liver. As alcohol is broken down, the chemical reaction releases a toxin called acetaldehyde. When too much acetaldehyde is in the liver, it can damage liver cells and cause inflammation and potential scarring.
Researchers are still unsure as to why this chemical seems to impact some individuals more than others.
Who Is Affected By Alcoholic Liver Disease?
Alcoholic liver disease is common in individuals who are between 40 and 50 years old. It is more likely to occur in men, however, the disease can develop in women with less exposure to alcohol than men. Some people may also have an inherited genetic risk for the disease.
Alcohol-related liver damage is an issue in the United States. Twenty-five percent of American adults reported having at least one day of heavy drinking in the past year. In 2015, 21,028 people died due to alcoholic liver disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Additional risk factors of alcoholic liver disease include frequent heavy drinking (binge drinking on five or more days a month), binge drinking (4+ drinks for women or 5+ drinks for men in two hours or less), and poor nutrition.
Treatment For Alcoholic Liver Disease
If caught early enough, alcoholic liver disease can often be reversed. Some things that can help decrease the severity of harm to the liver include:
- ceasing alcohol consumption
- eating a low-sodium diet
- taking a vitamin K supplement to prevent excess bleeding
- taking “water pills” or diuretics to get rid of excess fluid buildup
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It is always best to consult with your primary care physician before taking any over-the-counter medications regularly, especially if you are already taking other prescription substances regularly, to avoid any unwanted and unpleasant reactions.
If someone has consumed alcohol their whole life, it may be difficult for them to stop. Some people may be more dependent on the substance than they realize. One of the most effective ways to stop consuming alcohol is to enroll in an addiction treatment program.
An addiction specialist can help people identify their compulsive tendencies towards alcohol and give them tools to help cope with quitting drinking.
For more information be sure to check out these additional resources from DrugRehab.org:
- The Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on the Kidneys
- How Does Alcohol Abuse Affect The Body?
- The Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal
- How Common is Alcohol Abuse?