An addiction to alcohol can be very destructive. Using alcohol frequently and in larger amounts can lead to increased risk of health problems and put your body in significant risk of injury or even death. Alcoholism can also affect relationships, finances and legal freedoms.
One common negative and deadly effect of alcoholism is a liver disease called cirrhosis. Although not every person who misuses alcohol gets cirrhosis, this disease can have serious repercussions and some life-long effects.
What Is Alcoholic Cirrhosis?
Alcoholic cirrhosis is a liver disease. The liver has the vital role of filtering toxins from your blood. It also breaks down protein, creates some of the important components of blood clotting and creates the bile necessary to absorb fats.
When you drink excessively, particularly over long periods, the healthy tissue of your liver is replaced with scar tissue. Cirrhosis is the scarring of the liver and leads the cells in the affected areas to not function effectively or to stop functioning altogether. The more you drink, the more scar tissue develops and the more cirrhosis progresses. Eventually, your liver stops functioning the way it’s supposed to.
Symptoms of Alcoholic Cirrhosis
Cirrhosis can lead to several symptoms that can range from irritating to potentially deadly. Some of the symptoms of alcoholic cirrhosis can include:
- Weakness and fatigue
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
- Muscle atrophy
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain and tenderness in the upper right abdomen
- An increased amount of small, visible blood vessels on the skin
- Itchy skin
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes
- Increased bruising or bleeding
- Hair loss
- Swelling in the feet, legs or ankles
The most serious of these symptoms are increased bleeding, yellowing of the skin and eyes and swelling.
The increase in bleeding is because the liver stops making enough of the components needed for blood clotting and can also be noted in a person bruising easier than they used to. This side effect has some serious dangers, as even a minor source of bleeding can cause a significant blood loss because the bleeding cannot be stopped easily. If you notice that you have increased bleeding you should seek medical help as soon as possible.
Yellowing of Skin and Eyes
Increased yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes is also a serious symptom of alcoholic cirrhosis. The seriousness of this side effect is not due to the yellowing (also called jaundice) itself, but because this symptom indicates the liver is not functioning correctly. Jaundice indicates the build-up of toxins that could eventually become deadly. Someone who experiences jaundice should seek emergency medical help.
The last important symptom of alcoholic cirrhosis is swelling, especially within the abdomen. This swelling, also called ascites, is caused by proteins that keep water within the veins no longer being made by the liver. This sign indicates that the liver is not functioning as it should, and the buildup of fluid in the abdomen can lead to serious health problems.
Causes of Alcoholic Cirrhosis
The development of alcoholic cirrhosis doesn’t occur overnight. Rather, it’s a progression of liver damage, typically beginning as fatty liver disease, also called steatosis. In this stage of alcoholic liver disease, fat begins to accumulate in the liver, mildly decreasing the function of the liver and suppressing some of its functions. Steatosis is an indicator of more serious liver conditions. Up to ninety percent of heavy drinkers develop this first stage of alcoholic liver disease.
Someone who habitually uses alcohol may develop an inflamed liver due to the higher level of fatty tissues. This inflammation of the liver also referred to as alcoholic hepatitis, can cause the scarring of the liver that will eventually develop into alcoholic cirrhosis. Up to thirty-five percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis. This condition greatly increases the risk of developing alcoholic cirrhosis.
Alcoholic Cirrhosis Risk Factors
The most significant and obvious risk factor for alcoholic cirrhosis is heavy alcohol use. The more alcohol that is consumed, the more likely it is that alcoholic cirrhosis will occur. The length of time during which alcohol is misused will also be related to the increased risk of cirrhosis.
Women are more at risk for alcoholic liver disease than men because they have less of the enzymes needed to break down alcohol than men do. This lack of enzymes allows more alcohol to reach the liver and create the scar tissue that develops into cirrhosis.
Increased weight also increases your risk of developing alcoholic cirrhosis. This factor can be a more prevalent risk than most people initially realize, as heavy alcohol use will typically lead to increased weight
Underlying medical conditions, especially hepatitis, can also lead to an increased risk of alcoholic cirrhosis developing.
It’s not just heavy drinkers who get cirrhosis. Some people have damage to their liver and cirrhosis from only having two to four drinks per day. Women appear to be more susceptible to cirrhosis as well. Generally, the more you drink, the more your chances of developing cirrhosis increase.
Diagnosing Alcoholic Cirrhosis
While diagnosing alcoholic cirrhosis is ultimately up to your doctor, there are several factors that doctors typically consider when diagnosing cirrhosis.
The first factor is a physical exam and medical history review. The doctor will typically check for any physical symptoms of cirrhosis, including an enlarged or painful liver, as well as review your medical history for risk factors of cirrhosis, such as heavy alcohol use.
The physician will also perform blood work to examine the number of red blood cells and look for signs of bleeding that can occur with cirrhosis. Blood work may also include checking for viruses that can cause cirrhosis, such as hepatitis B or hepatitis C, and for blood markers that indicate an autoimmune cause of cirrhosis.
The doctor checking for cirrhosis may order an X-ray, ultrasound, or MRI to look at the liver and examine it for possible signs of the scarring that characterizes cirrhosis.
Finally, the doctor may perform a liver biopsy, in which a needle is used to take out a small piece of the liver. This piece is then viewed under a microscope by a specialist to see if there is any scarring in that piece of liver tissue.
Physicians typically use some combination of these techniques to determine if there is cirrhosis. They will normally use the medical history provided by their patient to determine if the cirrhosis is alcoholic cirrhosis or if there is another source of the cirrhosis. Even if there is cirrhosis that was not caused by alcohol, alcohol consumption will worsen any existing cirrhosis.
Treating Alcoholic Cirrhosis
Treatment of alcoholic cirrhosis ultimately involves an individualized plan made between a patient and their doctor. While treatment will vary based on each person’s unique circumstances, there are some basic components of treatment.
The first, and perhaps most crucial, way to treat alcoholic cirrhosis is to stop using alcohol. The scarring that cirrhosis causes is typically irreversible, but will continue to worsen as more alcohol is consumed. Stopping the use of alcohol will be vital to stopping the progression of alcoholic cirrhosis.
Treating any underlying medical conditions affecting the liver will also be important. Diseases such as hepatitis or an autoimmune disorder may worsen alcoholic cirrhosis.
Maintaining a high-protein, high-calorie diet will typically be recommended by medical professionals, along with maintaining a healthy level of exercise. This activity will help to optimize the remaining function of the liver.
Treatment of complications that occur from cirrhosis will also be an essential part of treatment. As cirrhosis cannot be reversed, the effects that it causes must be treated as they arise.
Ultimately, the only way to fully recover from alcoholic cirrhosis is to obtain a liver transplant. While a transplant can result in a full recovery, this option is not readily available to most people. One vital part of being eligible for a liver transplant for alcoholic cirrhosis will be a significant period of sobriety to ensure that the new liver will not undergo the same stresses that initially caused the cirrhosis.
Key Points: Alcoholic Cirrhosis
Alcoholic cirrhosis is a condition caused by heavy alcohol use and may lead to serious health problems or death. Some important points about alcoholic cirrhosis include:
- Alcoholic cirrhosis is live scarring caused by excessive alcohol use
- Alcoholic cirrhosis can lead to swelling, bleeding, and jaundice
- The more alcohol consumed, the higher the risk of severe liver damage
- Increased weight, being female and underlying liver conditions raise the risk of developing alcoholic cirrhosis
- Treatment of alcoholic cirrhosis involves stopping further damage and promoting optimal liver health
- The only “cure” for alcoholic cirrhosis is a liver transplant
- Alcoholic cirrhosis can be deadly
Alcoholic cirrhosis can lead to a myriad of health problems that can result in a severe decrease in the quality of life or a reduced lifespan. The only way to fully recover from the effects of alcoholic cirrhosis is to have a liver transplant, which requires a prolonged period of sobriety.
If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol, contact The Recovery Village to speak to a representative about your addiction. Learn how individualized treatment plans address addiction and any co-occurring mental health disorders. Take the first step toward sobriety, call today.
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Wolf, David C. “Cirrhosis.” Medscape, July 20, 2018. Accessed April 19, 2019.
Szalay, Jessica. “Liver: Function, Failure, & Disease.” Live Science, January 24, 2018. Accessed April 19, 2019.
NHS Inform. “Cirrhosis.” February 5, 2019. Accessed April 19, 2019.
American Liver Foundation. “Alcohol-Related Liver Disease.” 2017. Accessed April 19, 2019.
Menachery, John & Duseja, Ajay. “Treatment of Decompensated Alcoholic Liver Disease.” International Journal of Hepatology, July 2011. Accessed April 19, 2019.
Naveau, Sylvie et al. “Excess Weight Risk Factor for Alcoholic Liver Disease.” Hepatology, 1997. Accessed April 19, 2019.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Diagnosis of Cirrhosis.” March 2018. Accessed April 19, 2019.
O’Shea, R.S., Dasarathy, S., & McCullough A.J. “Alcoholic Liver Disease.” The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2010. Accessed April 19, 2019.