The serious health consequences that can occur as a result of prolonged over-consumption of alcohol, known as alcoholic liver disease, have many warning signs as the disease progresses. It is important to understand, for anyone experiencing symptoms, there is always an opportunity to reverse the damage by simply ceasing alcohol consumption as the liver possesses a remarkable ability for self-repair. However, once the symptoms have reached an advanced stage that involves alcoholic cirrhosis, the risk exists that it will be too late to reverse the destructive effects, and the only options to follow are to monitor and alter behaviors or to take the extreme alternative of a liver transplant to repair the damage.
The Nature of Alcoholic Liver Disease
Alcohol abuse is the behavior that promotes the onset of liver disease due to the consumption of alcohol. It goes by other names such as alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis or Laennecís cirrhosis, and typically occurs as a result of many years of drinking to excess. The nature of alcohol is such that the more one drinks, the more one has a tendency to drink more, and the longer more alcohol is consumed, the greater the probability that liver disease will develop.
Excessive or heavy drinking does not always affect all people similarly. There are genetic factors and individual susceptibility as well as the particular toxicity of the ethanol to the liver that play a role in how severely one is affected. There is empirical evidence that women are more susceptible to the disease than are men, and it does not necessarily correlate that one must get drunk for the disease to develop although acute alcoholic hepatitis is a risk associated with binge drinking. Malnutrition can contribute to alcoholic liver disease given the empty calories contained in alcohol. Drinking can lead to a reduced appetite, and what fewer nutrients are able to reach the intestines may be poorly absorbed, a condition known as malabsorption. Above all, the severity of the condition can be life-threatening.
Symptoms of Alcoholic Liver Disease
Variable symptoms can appear with differing intensity and may be more prevalent after periods of heavy drinking. As the affect of alcohol on the liver causes inflammation, known as alcoholic hepatitis, this can contribute to developing a fatty liver and eventually result in scarring of the liver tissue, called alcoholic cirrhosis. Once a liver has become cirrhotic, it has reached the end stage or final phase of the disease. Unfortunately, years may elapse before the symptoms become pronounced or noticeable, but that does not mean that the damage has not been done.
Any of the following symptoms should be of concern when alcohol is being consumed:
- Dry mouth or excessive thirst
- Loss of appetite
- Tenderness or pain in the abdomen
- Weight gain or fluid collecting in the abdomen, also called ascites
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes, called jaundice
- Nausea or vomitting
- Fatigue or agitation
- Mental confusion known as encephalopathy, including impaired judgment and inability to concentrate
- Changes in mood
- Impaired memory
- Rapid heart rate or dizziness upon standing
- Paleness, redness, or abnormally light or dark skin
- Attention deficit
- Breast development in males
- Bloody or tarry stools
Tests and Treatment
There are tests that can be done to rule out other diseases, such as an abdominal CT scan or an ultrasound of the abdomen if there is concern regarding any of the symptoms mentioned here. Getting a complete blood count (CBC) and a liver function test (ALP) to check for elevated liver enzymes could prompt the need to get a liver biopsy.
More important than any other action that can be taken is to cease alcohol intake. When alcoholic cirrhosis develops, it could come down to managing the complications until a liver transplant can be performed. While it is not always easy to quit drinking, there are plenty of programs that can help a person rehabilitate while receiving counseling. At the same time, patients in rehab will be able to get the needed vitamins, B complex and folic acid supplements to help reverse malnutrition.
Support groups are also of great benefit to help ease the stress of the illness from alcoholic liver disease as members share common experiences. Group support maintains that a problem shared is a problem halved. Breaking the addiction to alcohol is difficult to try to accomplish alone, which is why it is crucial to connect with alcoholism support groups and liver disease support groups.
Certainly, the continued use of alcohol is the action that directly threatens the lifespan. A good place to begin would be to discuss alcohol intake with the family doctor to better understand what steps to take to restore better health. If alcoholic cirrhosis has not yet occurred, there is every chance that the liver can heal if no more alcohol is ingested, allowing the cells a good chance for revival.