Alcoholic Liver Disease: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Drinking alcohol forces your liver to remove and process harmful toxins. Heavy drinkers push their liver beyond normal capacity, which may result in long-term damage to liver tissue and, eventually, alcoholic liver disease.

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Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS

Medically Reviewed By: Manish Mishra, MBBS


Alcohol use disorders are the most common causes of alcoholic liver disease. It is possible to stop and even reverse the health damage caused by alcohol in the early stages. However, serious liver damage can be fatal.

How Alcohol Addiction Causes Liver Damage

The liver is a complex organ. Its primary function is filtering your blood. As blood passes through your liver, toxins are removed and chemical levels are regulated.

While the liver can usually handle drinking in moderation, heavy drinking is another story. Drinking more than the maximum amount of alcohol suggested by the CDC makes the liver work harder.

Overworking your liver can lead to long-term health problems and potentially fatal consequences.

How The Liver Filters Alcohol

When you consume alcohol, it is absorbed into the bloodstream. This blood travels to the liver via your hepatic portal vein.

Your liver removes and begins to metabolize the alcohol in your blood. To start the process, your liver cells will produce an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase.

This enzyme helps to break down alcohol into ketones. These waste products exit your liver as bile.

Effects Of Alcohol On The Liver Over Time

Your liver can only process about 0.015 grams per 100 milliliters per hour. Consuming more than one or two alcoholic beverages within a few hours is often too much for the liver to handle.

Your liver cells are essentially being asked to work overtime. This causes damage which builds over time. That is why most long-term alcohol abuse results in serious liver disease.

Alcohol-Related Liver Disease (ARLD)

Alcohol-related liver disease, commonly called alcoholic liver disease, refers to any form of liver disease that results from alcohol use.

While people who frequently abuse alcohol are at higher risk, it can affect anyone who uses alcohol.

Alcohol-related liver disease usually follows a predictable path. The earliest stages are highly treatable if you stop using alcohol.

Unfortunately, many people do not know they have alcohol-related liver disease until the disease is in its final stages. At that point, it is impossible to reverse the effects. At best, you may be able to stop the progression.

1. Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Alcoholic fatty liver disease, or steatosis, is the earliest form of liver disease. It occurs when there is an excess buildup of fat in your liver.

Essentially, the same enzymes that your body uses to process alcohol also stimulate the creation of fatty acids.

Under normal circumstances, your body would process alcohol so infrequently that this wouldn’t be an issue.

If you’re using alcohol frequently, your liver is also producing fatty acids frequently. Over time, this process causes your liver to develop fatty deposits.

Fatty liver disease does not normally have any symptoms, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. This is the first sign of a diseased liver, but the liver can heal and regenerate if you stop drinking.

Learn more about alcoholic fatty liver disease.

2. Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis is not related to Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C. It is an inflammation of the liver as a result of alcohol consumption.

Most instances of alcoholic hepatitis are caused by many years of alcohol abuse. However, it is possible for extreme binge drinking to result in alcoholic hepatitis.

Put simply, alcoholic hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver. In this case, your liver cells have been damaged by extensive alcohol consumption.

Your body’s natural response is to treat the damage, triggering inflammation. Unfortunately, this response can become uncontrollable when the liver is seriously damaged. This unregulated inflammation is alcoholic hepatitis.

The most common side effects of alcoholic hepatitis include:

  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • joint pain
  • lethargy
  • nausea

Unfortunately, a lot of these symptoms are similar to those you experience during a hangover.

It is possible to experience more noteworthy symptoms such as discolored stool, jaundice, and abdominal swelling known as ascites.

If you are experiencing any of these, then your liver function is seriously compromised. You need emergency healthcare. Severe alcoholic hepatitis can be life-threatening.

Find out more about alcoholic hepatitis.

3. Cirrhosis

Alcohol-related cirrhosis is the most serious stage of liver disease. It is marked by numerous lesions and extensive scar tissue on the liver. Cirrhosis is often the result of decades of alcohol abuse, and it’s a very serious condition.

The most noticeable symptoms are usually jaundice, easy bruising, and swelling. These are all signs that you should seek prompt medical attention.

At this stage, the disease is not reversible. If you’re diagnosed with liver cirrhosis, your best chance is to stop drinking immediately.

You may be able to slow or even stop the progression of the disease. Once you’ve been sober for a minimum of six months, you’re more likely to qualify for a liver transplant if you go into liver failure.

Can You Reverse Alcoholic Liver Damage?

Alcoholic liver damage can be reversed when it is caught early. The damage can usually be identified through blood tests, liver function tests, or a liver biopsy if necessary.

Fatty liver disease is the most easily reversed. It is also possible to reverse mild alcoholic hepatitis.

The easiest way to reverse liver damage is to eliminate all alcohol intake. Moderate drinking is not safe for people with a history of liver disease.

With that said, giving up alcohol entirely is rarely easy. Please ask for help if you need it to quit drinking. It could literally save your life.

Treatment For Alcohol Addiction

While many frequent alcohol users are not technically addicted to alcohol, they may still struggle with quitting. In the United States, drinking is a cultural norm, and it can be very hard to change existing habits.

If you’re struggling to make the lifestyle changes necessary for your health, ask for help. Bedrock Recovery Center offers a range of alcohol treatment programs for people who are trying to stop drinking.

These include inpatient options, outpatient services, counseling, detox, medication-assisted treatment, and more.

Find Treatment Services For Alcohol Abuse Today

From alcohol dependence to addiction, Bedrock Recovery Center has an alcohol treatment program for everyone.

If you need medical assistance to get through withdrawal symptoms, that can be arranged. If you need someone to help you identify triggers and harmful patterns, that can also be arranged.

Don’t try to do it alone. When you need help, ask for it — we’re here to help you begin your alcohol recovery journey.

  1. American Liver Foundation
  2. National Health Service
  3. National Institutes of Health
  4. National Library of Medicine

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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