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4 Ways Alcohol Damages Your Liver

Published on August 13, 2021
First Signs Of Liver Damage From Alcohol | 4 Ways Alcohol Damages Your Liver

The liver works by using enzymes to break down the alcohol you drink so that it can be removed from the body through urine, sweating, and breathing. But with a large amount of alcohol in the system, this process can leave alcohol sitting in the system longer than is healthy.

Additionally, the byproduct of alcohol once the liver breaks it down can be more toxic than the alcohol itself. In large enough quantities, it can cause serious damage to the liver cells. 

This damage can be severe and increase the risk of alcoholic liver disease. Here are four severe ways alcohol damages your liver.

1. Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

A fatty liver (also known as hepatic steatosis) is the most common type of alcohol-related liver disease. Fat builds up in the liver which stops the liver from working properly. At least some fat buildup is common for heavy drinkers.

Drinking too much alcohol stops the breakdown of fats in the liver. The liver will always break down alcohol before anything else, so fat is left there to build up.

Luckily, a fatty liver is reversible, and if treated, won’t lead to more serious damage. Treatment involves abstaining from alcohol use for at least several weeks.

Symptoms Of Fatty Liver Disease

While people with alcoholic fatty liver normally don’t have symptoms, if they do occur, they most commonly include:

  • discomfort in the area of the liver
  • fatigue
  • unexplained weight loss

2. Alcoholic Hepatitis

If a fatty liver isn’t treated or dealt with, it can develop into alcoholic hepatitis or inflammation of the liver. Besides inflammation, destruction of the liver cells and scarring of liver tissue (fibrosis) are some of the major issues associated with alcoholic hepatitis. 

The disease can be mild and happen over years or be serious and happen all of a sudden. When it happens all of a sudden, there’s a good chance it’s due to binge drinking. 

The condition can be fata but might be reversible if you stop drinking alcohol permanently and catch it in the early stages. It can also be treated with lifestyle changes and medication to help with inflammation. A liver transplant is likely needed in the most serious of cases.

If not treated, complications like hepatic encephalopathy, enlarged veins, kidney failure, and cirrhosis can make it life-threatening.

Symptoms Of Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis also doesn’t always show its symptoms, but when it does, the symptoms may include:

  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • abdominal pain
  • fatigue
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin) 
  • fever
  • liver failure or death

3. Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is one of the most common types of chronic liver disease. Cirrhosis is also the second most common cause of liver damage behind hepatitis C. 

Scarring of the liver or liver cirrhosis occurs when alcohol changes the chemicals in the liver that break down and remove scar tissue. Scar tissue is replaced by healthy cells when the liver is working properly, but that doesn’t happen when the liver has been damaged by heavy alcohol consumption.

The scarring stiffens blood vessels and changes the structure of the liver. This leads to a decline in liver function and can ultimately lead to other organs not working correctly either.

The disease can be life-threatening due to complications like hypertension or kidney failure. The disorder can stabilize if you quit drinking permanently.

Symptoms Of Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Alcohol-related cirrhosis comes with a variety of symptoms and the most common may include:

  • vomiting blood
  • swollen abdomen
  • loss of appetite
  • itching
  • portal hypertension (high blood pressure in the liver)
  • muscle cramps
  • ascites (accumulation of fluid in the abdomen)
  • kidney failure
  • liver cancer

4. Liver Cancer

While liver cancer isn’t directly brought on by alcohol, it can occur indirectly because of alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking can damage the liver and lead to alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis and those illnesses can put you at a higher risk for liver cancer. 

Symptoms Of Liver Cancer

Some of the symptoms of liver cancer may include:

  • fluids in the abdomen and legs
  • jaundice
  • confusion
  • memory problems
  • loss of appetite
  • losing weight without trying
  • fatigue
  • vomiting
  • loss of balance

If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol addiction, call our helpline today and learn about our treatment options

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Alcohol Research - Alcoholic Liver Disease: Pathogenesis and Current Management
Health Service Executive - Alcohol's effect on the body
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Exploring Alcohol’s Effects on Liver Function
National Health Service (NHS) - Alcohol-related liver disease
National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus - Alcoholic liver disease

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