There has been 93 per cent increase in the number of alcohol-related liver disease hospital admissions for men since 2002 (source: Alcohol Concern). There has also been a 91 per cent increase in the number of female admissions for this same problem. It is men and women in their thirties and forties that account most for this increase in the number of hospital admissions.
Alcoholic Liver Disease Explained
A number of different processes can lead to liver disease but alcohol abuse is the most common (alcoholic liver disease accounts for about fifty per cent of cases). The liver plays a vital role in the body as it is responsible for over 500 different processes, including cleaning the blood and breaking down food. The liver is usually a very hardy organ (it can function even when up to 50 per cent of its cells have been destroyed) but alcohol abuse just causes so much damage that it is unable to cope.
Alcohol abuse harms the liver by way of two main mechanisms. Drinking causes direct damage to the cells in this organ because of oxidative stress – this involves inflammation that leaves scarring on the liver. Alcohol abuse also causes damage to the intestines, which allows dangerous toxins to travel to the liver.
There are four main stages of alcoholic liver disease (ALD). The first is referred to as fatty liver, which occurs because of an abnormal retention of fat cells by the organ; this means there are increasing lipid cells rather than healthy liver cells. Fatty liver disease can begin after just one night of heavy drinking.
Alcoholic hepatitis is the second stage of ALD. The toxic effect of alcohol causes the liver to become inflamed, which begins to compromise normal function. This inflammation also starts to cause scarring on the organ. If this scarring continues, it will lead to the third stage of ALD, which is liver cirrhosis. The final stage of ALD is end-stage liver failure – at this point, the person will die unless they receive a liver transplant.
The Symptoms of Alcoholic Liver Disease
There are often no symptoms for fatty liver disease but there can be signs, such as:
- constant tiredness
- vague abdominal discomfort
- weight loss.
The symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include:
- nausea and vomiting
- abdominal discomfort
- abdominal swelling
- changes to mental clarity (for example, feeling confused or fuzzy thinking)
- jaundice (yellowing to the skin and eye white)
- weight loss
- dry mouth
The symptoms of liver cirrhosis include:
- itchy skin
- extreme mental confusion (hepatic encephalopathy) due to toxins building up in the bloodstream
- ascites – accumulation of fluid in the tissues beneath the skin
- bleeding oesophageal varices – blood vessels in the oesophagus that can burst (it can cause the person to drown on their own blood).
Treatment for Alcoholic Liver Disease
It is vital that ALD is halted as early as possible. The person needs to stop drinking right away so they do not cause any more damage to this organ, and he or she needs to commit to lifetime abstinence. There are many treatment options available for those struggling to remain sober without help. Those individuals who stop before there is too much scarring to the liver may be able to make a full recovery.
Once cirrhosis of the liver has developed, it would not be possible to reverse the damage. The main goal of treatment is to prevent further damage and to treat any symptoms as they arise. Those reaching this stage will need to make changes to their lifestyle in order to improve their prognosis (for example, diet changes, and avoiding certain medications).