Liver Disease

In Scotland, between 1997/98 and 2003/04, the number of general hospital patients admitted with alcoholic liver disease rose by 41%.

Source: NHS Scotland

Alcohol induced liver disease accounts for over half of all the liver disease in the UK.

Source: British Liver Trust

Alcohol Liver Disease

Harmful drinking

Harmful drinking means drinking alcohol at levels that lead to significant harm to physical and mental health, and that may cause substantial harm to others. Examples of harm include liver damage or cirrhosis, dependence on alcohol and substantial stress or aggression in the family.

Women who regularly drink more than 6 units of alcohol a day (or more than 35 units a week) and men who regularly drink more than 8 units a day (or 50 units a week) are at the highest risk of alcohol-related harm.

Women who drink heavily during pregnancy put their baby at risk of developing foetal alcohol syndrome or foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. These disorders lead to lifelong intellectual and behavioural problems for the child.

Alcoholic liver disease refers to a range of conditions and associated symptoms that develop when the liver becomes damaged due to alcohol misuse.

Alcoholic liver disease does not usually cause any symptoms until the liver has been extensively damaged. When this happens, alcoholic liver disease can cause:

  • nausea
  • weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)

The liver

With the exception of the brain, the liver is the most complex organ in the body. It has more than 500 functions, most of which are essential for living.

The functions of the liver include:

  • filtering toxins from the blood
  • producing important chemicals, such as proteins and hormones
  • producing blood-clotting agents that prevent excessive bleeding
  • regulating cholesterol levels in the blood
  • helping to fight infection and disease
  • storing energy for use when the body needs an immediate energy boost

Alcohol and the liver

The liver is a very tough and resilient organ. It can endure a high level of damage that would destroy other organs. It is also capable of regenerating itself. Despite this resilience, prolonged alcohol misuse over many years can damage the liver.

Every time you drink alcohol, your liver filters out the poisonous alcohol from your blood.

Each time your liver filters alcohol, some of the liver cells die. The liver can regenerate new cells, but if you drink heavily for many years, your liver will lose its ability to regenerate new cells, causing serious damage.

Stages in alcoholic liver disease

There are three main stages of alcoholic liver disease, though there is often a considerable overlap between each stage. These stages are explained below.

Alcoholic fatty liver disease

Alcoholic fatty liver disease is the first stage of alcoholic liver disease.

Heavy consumption of alcohol, even for only a few days, can lead to a build-up of fatty acids in the liver.

Fatty liver disease rarely causes any symptoms but it is an important warning sign that you are drinking at a level that is harmful to your health.

Fatty liver disease is reversible. If you stop drinking alcohol for two weeks, your liver should return to normal.

Alcoholic hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis is the second more serious stage of alcoholic liver disease.

Prolonged alcohol misuse over many years can cause the tissues of the liver to become inflamed. This is known as alcoholic hepatitis. Less commonly, alcoholic hepatitis can occur if you drink a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time (binge drinking).

Alcoholic hepatitis is usually reversible, though you may need to stop drinking alcohol for several months or years.

Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is the final stage of alcoholic liver disease. Cirrhosis occurs when prolonged inflammation of the liver has caused scarring of the liver and subsequent loss of function. Loss of liver function can result in death.

The damage caused by cirrhosis is not reversible. In mild to moderate cases, stopping drinking alcohol immediately should prevent further damage and lead to the gradual recovery of liver function. In more severe cases, a liver transplant may be required.

How common is alcoholic liver disease?

Alcoholic liver disease is widespread in England.

It is estimated that:

  • 90-100% of heavy drinkers have alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • one in four drinkers with fatty liver disease will develop alcoholic hepatitis
  • one in five drinkers with fatty liver disease will develop cirrhosis

A heavy drinker is someone who regularly exceeds the recommended weekly limit for alcohol consumption. This is 3-4 units of alcohol a day for men, and 2-3 units for women.

Women are more likely to develop alcoholic liver disease, but men are more likely to die from it, possibly because men tend to be heavier drinkers.

In 2008, there were 4,764 deaths in England and Wales due to alcoholic liver disease. Three-quarters of these were men.

Death rates linked to alcoholic liver disease have risen by over two-thirds (69%) in the last 30 years. This makes alcohol one of the most common causes of death, along with smoking and high blood pressure.

Fatty liver disease and hepatitis can develop at any age. Cirrhosis usually develops in people aged 40 or over. However, cases of cirrhosis have been reported in people of all ages, including teenagers.

Outlook

The outlook for alcoholic liver disease largely depends on whether you are willing to stop drinking alcohol, preferably for the rest of your life.

In the early stage of alcoholic liver disease (fatty liver and hepatitis), people who stop drinking have a very good outlook as their liver has the opportunity to repair itself.

Even in cases of cirrhosis, the outlook can be improved dramatically by stopping drinking, not least because you will only be considered for a liver transplant if you do not drink alcohol for at least three months.

Three out of four people with cirrhosis who have a liver transplant will live for at least five years after receiving the transplant, and many will live much longer.

Source: NHS UK

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