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Alcohol-related liver disease complications and treatment

Knowledge

Alcohol-related liver disease complications and treatment

Your nightly cocktail or glass of wine may help you unwind, but is it setting you up for serious health problems?

“Alcohol can be quite toxic to the liver and can cause significant liver problems,” says Lance Stein, M.D., a transplant hepatologist at Piedmont Transplant Institute.

When a person drinks a high volume of alcohol for a long period of time, he or she can develop fat and inflammation in the liver. As these conditions progress, liver cirrhosis can develop, which occurs when healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue. Patients with liver cirrhosis are at risk for liver failure and liver cancer.

Heavy drinking and liver disease

Dr. Stein says 8 to 10 percent of the United States population is considered “heavy drinkers.” Heavy drinking means:

  • More than 15 drinks per week for men

  • More than 8 drinks per week for women

“Of those, approximately 10 to 15 percent likely will go on to develop chronic liver disease, including liver cirrhosis,” he explains.

Complications of alcohol-related liver disease

The three main types alcohol-related liver disease include:

  • Fatty liver disease, which is the buildup of fat in the liver. It is the earliest stage of alcohol-induced liver disease. Not drinking alcohol can reverse the disease.

  • Acute alcoholic hepatitis, which causes the liver to become inflamed and damaged. Mild forms of the disease can be reversed. In severe cases, liver failure may occur quickly.

  • Alcoholic cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. It is the most advanced form of liver disease. Scarring cannot be reversed and may lead to liver failure.

Alcoholic liver disease may not have noticeable symptoms, but a blood test and annual physical can help your physician determine if you have the disease or are at risk.  

Treatment options for alcoholic liver disease

“When someone develops chronic liver disease or cirrhosis as a result of heavy drinking, there are not many treatment options to offer,” says Dr. Stein.

Currently, transplant is the only treatment available to cure liver failure. Unlike kidney failure, no dialysis is available to help the liver function until a donated organ becomes available.

Unfortunately, more than 1,500 people die every year while waiting for a liver transplant.

If caught early enough and alcohol use is discontinued, some liver damage can be reversed and the liver can repair itself.

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