Liver Disorder Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Alcohol is a toxin that disrupts the metabolism and, in sufficient quantities, damages internal organs, particularly the central nervous system. Alcohol abuse can cause three specific diseases: fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. Of course, these diseases have other known causes as well.

Who’s at Risk?

No one knows why some alcoholics develop liver disease while others don’t. As in many other conditions with unknown causes, experts have hypothesized a genetic predisposition to the disease in some cases.

Women who abuse alcohol are at greater risk of developing these diseases than men. Other factors that increase the risk are poor nutrition and a history of organ damage from past infections.

Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease, or steatohepatitis, is one of the first signs that alcohol is causing adverse effects. Fat builds up as a result of alcohol metabolism, hindering the organ’s ability to perform effectively.

Fortunately, if it’s caught early, steatohepatitis can be reversed. Abstaining from alcohol allows the liver to begin shedding excess fat and return to normal function. Left untreated, steatohepatitis eventually leads to irreversible cirrhosis, or scarring.

Alcoholism is not always the cause of steatohepatitis. Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, can be caused by malnutrition, heart disease, obesity and long-term corticosteroid use.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Ten to 35 percent of heavy drinkers eventually develop alcoholic hepatitis or inflammation of the liver, but even moderate drinkers can develop the disorder. The condition can be either chronic or acute, and it often appears after an exceptionally heavy bout of drinking.

Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis resemble those of viral hepatitis. Discomfort, loss of appetite, nausea and liver pain are common. Jaundice, mental confusion and abdominal swelling can also occur. The condition is reversible if the patient stops drinking, but it can take months for symptoms to disappear.

Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is essentially the scarring that occurs when the liver is damaged by inflammation. The scar tissue blocks the flow of blood and prevents the organ from functioning properly. Ten to fifteen percent of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis, one of the ten leading causes of death by disease in the United States.

Cirrhosis symptoms may not be noticeable during the early stages of the disease. Exhaustion, fatigue and loss of appetite may occur, as may nausea, weight loss and weakness. As the scarring increases, more complications may develop. They include:

  • portal hypertension
  • esophageal varices
  • infection
  • jaundice
  • gallstones
  • easy bleeding or bruising
  • sensitivity to medication.

In addition to the complications of cirrhosis, an estimated five percent of people suffering from cirrhosis develop liver cancer, one of the most serious forms of cancer.

Once cirrhosis damage occurs, it cannot be reversed. However, avoiding alcohol prevents further damage and reduces the chance of new symptoms developing. Many organizations offer help to people battling alcoholism.

Resources

American Liver Foundation. (2003). The liver: A primer.

Beers, M. H.,