Effects of Alcohol Use on the Liver

Liver disease is one of several potential consequences of chronic, excessive alcohol use. Approximately 20%–25% of people who drink heavily over many years develop cirrhosis—a severe form of liver disease.1

This article will discuss the many serious effects alcohol can have on the liver and alcohol addiction treatment options.

Effects of Alcohol on the Liver

The liver is a vital organ that metabolizes alcohol that enters the body.2 Excessive alcohol consumption can overwhelm or inflame the liver, making it more vulnerable to infection, injury, and scarring.2,3

Chronic alcohol use can also cause liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), the 2nd highest cause of cancer-related death in men and the 6th highest cause of cancer-related death in women worldwide.4

What is Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?

Alcohol liver disease (ALD) references a continuum of disease, characterized by 3 main phases:1,5

  1. Steatosis.
  2. Hepatitis.
  3. Fibrosis (scarring) and cirrhosis (severe scarring and damage to liver cells).3

Steatosis and mild hepatitis may be reversible by quitting drinking and making lifestyle changes.5

Fatty Liver (Steatosis)

Steatosis refers to the accumulation of fat in the liver.  Steatosis can develop after binge drinking (consuming 4 or more drinks in a period of 2 hours or less for women and 5 drinks in the same time frame for men) or periods of prolonged heavy drinking. Patients with this condition are typically asymptomatic and may have normal or only slightly raised liver enzymes in lab results.6 Steatosis affects 90% of people who consume at least 4–5 drinks a day over a period of decades.2

Steatosis is potentially reversible if a patient quits drinking before their condition progresses in severity. However, the presence of steatosis represents a greater risk of fibrosis (i.e., liver scarring).2

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Steatosis progresses to alcoholic hepatitis when there is inflammation of the liver or scarring (this can be identified through a biopsy).2 Alcoholic hepatitis can range from mild to severe and potentially deadly and develops in approximately 30-40% of people who engage in chronic excessive alcohol use.2

Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis may include:6,7

  • Rapid onset of jaundice.
  • Abdominal pain, fullness, or distention.
  • Swollen liver due to inflammation.
  • Fever.
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding.
  • Changes in mental status..

Depending on the degree of inflammation and damage done, hepatitis may be reversible if the patient quits drinking. Severe alcoholic hepatitis has potentially worse outcomes, with around 40% of patients dying within 6 months after symptoms present.7

Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Alcoholic fibrosis and its terminal stage, cirrhosis,7 refers to excessive scarring of the liver. Cirrhosis happens when scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue, deeply impacting liver function.8

Blood flow through the liver is impacted as scar tissue prevents blood from adequately flowing through the liver, and the liver begins to fail as cirrhosis worsens.8

Complications associated with cirrhosis may include:8

  • Bruising or bleeding easier than normal.
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Malnutrition.
  • Gallstones.
  • Hypertension in the portal vein, potentially leading to buildup of fluid in the abdomen; swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet; enlarged veins in the esophagus, intestines, and stomach; and confusion caused by toxins building in the brain (hepatic encephalopathy).
  • Bacterial infections.
  • Liver cancer.
  • Liver failure.

An estimated 1 out of 400 people in the United States have cirrhosis.8 Among all deaths from cirrhosis, 50% of were attributable to alcohol use.9

While scar tissue will remain, the liver may heal after someone abstains from drinking for an extended period.10 In advanced cases of liver disease, however, a liver transplant may be necessary.11 If someone with cirrhosis continues to drink, the disease will likely progress to liver failure.2

Other Health Effects of Excessive Alcohol Use

An estimated 140,000 people in the United States die from alcohol-related causes each year, making alcohol use the country’s 4th leading cause of preventable death.12

The effects and risks of excessive alcohol use can be either immediate or develop after chronic use.

Immediate potential risks and effects, most often the result of binge drinking, include:13

  • Falls and injuries.
  • Being a victim or perpetrator of violence.
  • Stillbirth or birth defects if alcohol is consumed during pregnancy.
  • Unwanted pregnancy or the spread of sexually transmitted diseases caused by poor judgment and risky sexual behavior.
  • Motor vehicle accidents.
  • Alcohol poisoning (also known as alcohol overdose).

Chronic excessive alcohol consumption may, over time, lead to:13

  • High blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
  • A weakened immune system.
  • Social problems, including unemployment, family problems, and occupational problems.
  • Anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
  • Digestive problems and liver diseases.
  • Breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, or rectal cancer.
  • Problems with learning and memory, including dementia and poor academic performance.

Developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD)—the clinical term for alcohol addiction—is another serious potential health effect of alcohol use.13 In 2021, 10.6% of Americans 12 years old or older struggled with AUD in the past year.14

Alcohol Rehab in California

Fortunately, help is available for people struggling with AUD. Laguna Treatment Center—American Addiction Centers’ (AAC) alcohol rehab in Orange County—provides comprehensive addiction treatment to help you live a life free from substance use. At Laguna Treatment, we understand the importance of providing individualized treatment, and we work with you to create a treatment plan that is as unique as you are.

We offer different levels of substance abuse treatment and services, so you are sure to get the help that suits you, your needs, and your recovery goals. Call to speak with one of our compassionate admissions navigators who can help you start the rehab admissions process, assist you in using insurance to pay for rehab, or help you explore other rehab payment options.

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We are here to help you learn how to live without reaching for the next drink. Laguna Treatment Hospital is located in Orange County within easy reach of the entire Los Angeles metro. We are the premier chemical dependency recovery hospital in the OC. We offer safe medical detox, mental health support, and wellness programs.