Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease

What is alcohol-induced liver disease?

Alcohol-induced liver disease, as the name implies, is caused by excessive consumption of alcohol and is a common, but preventable, disease.

There are three primary types of alcohol-induced liver disease, including the following:

  • fatty liver
    Fatty liver is excessive accumulation of fat inside the liver cells.
    Fatty liver is the most common alcohol-induced liver disorder. The liver is enlarged, causing upper abdominal discomfort on the right side.
  • alcoholic hepatitis
    Alcoholic hepatitis is an acute inflammation of the liver, accompanied by the destruction of individual liver cells and frequently followed by permanent scarring. Symptoms may include fever, jaundice, weakness, right-sided abdominal pain, and nausea. The white blood count is elevated, and the liver is enlarged and tender.
  • alcoholic cirrhosis
    Alcoholic cirrhosis is the destruction of normal liver tissue, leaving non-functioning scar tissue. Symptoms and signs, in addition to those of alcoholic hepatitis, include portal hypertension (increased resistance to blood flow through the liver), enlarged spleen, ascites (fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity), kidney failure, confusion, and liver cancer.

What are the symptoms of alcohol-induced liver disease?

The effects of alcohol on the liver depend on how much and how long a person has been drinking alcohol. The following are the most common symptoms and signs of alcohol-induced liver disease. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently.

  • enlarged liver
  • fever
  • nausea
  • vomiting 
  • jaundice - yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • increased white blood cell count
  • spider-like veins in the skin
  • portal hypertension
  • enlarged spleen
  • ascites - fluid build-up in the abdominal cavity
  • kidney failure
  • confusion

The symptoms of alcohol-induced liver disease may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is alcohol-induced liver disease diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for alcohol-induced liver disease may include the following:

  • laboratory tests
  • liver function tests - a series of special blood tests that can determine if the liver is functioning properly.
  • liver biopsy - a procedure in which tissue samples from the liver are removed (with a needle or during surgery) from the body for examination under a microscope.
  • computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan)This diagnostic imaging procedure uses a combination of x-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general x-rays.
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)MRI is a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body. The patient lies on a bed that moves into the cylindrical MRI machine. The machine takes a series of pictures of the inside of the body using a magnetic field and radio waves. The computer enhances the pictures produced. The test is painless, and does not involve exposure to radiation. Because the MRI machine is like a tunnel, some people are claustrophobic or unable to hold still during the test, and may be given a sedative to help them relax. Metal objects cannot be present in the MRI room, so persons with pacemakers or metal clips or rods inside the body cannot have this test done. All jewelry must be removed before the procedure.

Treatment for alcohol-induced liver disease:

Specific treatment for alcohol-induced liver disease will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

The goal of treatment is to restore some or all normal functioning to the liver. Treatment usually begins with abstinence from alcohol. The liver has great restorative power and is often able to repair some of the damage caused by alcohol. The scarring from cirrhosis is not reversible, and when liver tissue loss is severe enough to cause liver failure, most of the damage may be irreversible.  In some cases, liver transplant may be considered.

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