Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Alcoholic cirrhosis is a type of end-stage liver disease caused by years of heavy drinking. The condition is life-threatening. Recovery requires sobriety. In many cases, a liver transplant is necessary.
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Liver cirrhosis is responsible for a large portion of the roughly 40,000 deaths caused by chronic liver disease each year. Heavy drinking is closely associated with the development of cirrhosis, but viral hepatitis and other diseases can also cause the condition.

Cirrhosis refers to the scarring of the liver. The liver is the only internal organ that can regenerate damaged tissue with healthy tissue. However, alcohol disrupts the regeneration process, causing scar tissue to form. The liver can’t replace scar tissue with healthy tissue.

Scar tissue blocks blood from flowing through the liver, which disrupts the liver’s ability to process nutrients, hormones and other substances. If enough scar tissue is formed on the liver, the organ can fail to perform vital life functions.

Cirrhosis is one of several diseases caused by alcohol. It’s the most serious type of alcohol-related liver damage. A mild liver problem called fatty liver disease usually heals on its own once a person stops drinking. A more serious condition called alcoholic hepatitis is usually not life-threatening if the person stops drinking and seeks treatment.

If it isn’t treated and the person keeps drinking, alcoholic hepatitis can lead to alcoholic cirrhosis. Cirrhosis of the liver can also develop in people who don’t have a history of fatty liver disease or hepatitis.

How Much Alcohol Causes Cirrhosis?

Drinking alcohol heavily for numerous years causes alcoholic cirrhosis. The more alcohol that you consistently consume, the more quickly you may develop cirrhosis. Experts say the risk of liver cirrhosis increases in men if they drink at least three to five standard drinks per day for 10 years. The risk for liver cirrhosis increases for women if they drink at least two standards drinks per day.

The longer a person drinks alcohol steadily, the less alcohol is needed to develop cirrhosis. For example, a person may develop cirrhosis after averaging six drinks per day for eight years or after averaging two drinks per day for 15 years.

Most people do not drink enough alcohol to develop cirrhosis from drinking. People who are addicted to alcohol and don’t receive treatment are at an increased risk for liver cirrhosis because they’re unable to control how much they drink. Alcoholism rehab is essential to help alcoholics quit drinking before severe liver problems develop.

Heavy drinkers and alcoholics are at the highest risk for liver cirrhosis, but some people who drink heavily never develop cirrhosis. Doctors think that genetic factors may protect some people from cirrhosis.

Symptoms of Alcoholic Cirrhosis of the Liver

Alcoholic cirrhosis causes several serious symptoms that may require immediate medical attention. The early stage of liver cirrhosis may not cause noticeable symptoms. As the disease progresses, symptoms get worse.

Symptoms of alcohol-induced liver cirrhosis include:

  • Appetite loss
  • Energy loss
  • Easy bruising
  • Brown urine
  • Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes)
  • Swelling of legs or abdomen
  • Confusion
  • Fever

People who have a history of regular alcohol consumption and who experience these symptoms should talk to their health care provider. A doctor can diagnose liver cirrhosis with imaging scans, blood tests or a biopsy, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Ascites & Other Complications

People with liver cirrhosis or other forms of liver damage may experience side effects of malnutrition because the liver is unable to process nutrients in food or drinks. These people may also have difficulty taking medications that are metabolized by the liver.

Ascites is a serious complication of alcoholic cirrhosis that causes fluid to build up in the abdomen. It is often a warning sign for liver failure, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. Ascites can cause pain, trouble breathing and hernias. It can also increase the risk of infection.

Additional complications of liver cirrhosis include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney failure
  • Gallstones
  • Liver cancer
  • Hepatic encephalopathy (confused thinking and behavior changes)
  • Variceal bleeding (a type of internal bleeding)

Treatment for liver cirrhosis usually begins with the treatment and management of complications.

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Treatments for Alcoholic Cirrhosis of the Liver

Few treatments exist for liver cirrhosis. The best thing someone with liver cirrhosis can do is quit drinking. If you’re used to consuming several drinks each day, you should talk to your doctor before you stop drinking abruptly.

It may be possible to go through alcohol detox at home, but it’s safer to detox at a rehab facility if you experience withdrawal symptoms when you go too long without alcohol.

Along with recommending sobriety, doctors may treat some symptoms of liver cirrhosis with:

  • Nutritional support
  • Corticosteroids (anti-inflammatories)
  • Pentoxifylline (a prescription drug to improve circulation)

In cases where liver failure is expected, a liver transplant is usually recommended.

Alcoholic cirrhosis can be prevented if you drink in moderation. Casual drinking is different from problem drinking. Problem drinking involves making alcohol a part of your everyday life. People who drink casually don’t drink alcohol on a daily or weekly basis.

People who drink in moderation also have a lower risk of other health effects of alcohol, such as immune system problems, poor reproductive health and injury. People who have a history of liver problems should talk to their doctor about whether there is a safe amount of alcohol that they can consume.

Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer,
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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