Alcohol and Liver Disease

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to three main types of liver conditions: fatty liver, hepatitis and 'scarring' of the liver (cirrhosis). It can also lead to other health problems.

Many of us enjoy an occasional alcoholic drink, and our body can cope with drinking a small amount of alcohol - but it really is a small amount. People who drink 1-2 units a day are statistically at a slightly lower risk of heart attack than teetotallers, but drinking more than that increases your risk of several cancers and heart disease, as well as liver disease - that news seems to be taking longer to filter through.

How much alcohol is too much?

Drinking more than the recommended safe limits of alcohol can cause significant problems with your health, and the more alcohol you drink, the greater the risks.

The Chief Medical Officer recommends that men and women should stick to a maximum of 14 units a week. If you are drinking that much, you should spread it evenly over three or more days, ideally with several alcohol-free days a week. One unit of alcohol is equal to about half a pint of ordinary strength beer or cider, a small single measure of spirits or a standard pub measure of fortified wine such as sherry or port.

What are the symptoms?

The liver is in the upper right part of the tummy (abdomen), just below the ribs.

liver

Drinking too much alcohol leads to three main conditions which can seriously threaten your health:

  • Fatty liver.
  • Hepatitis.
  • 'Scarring' of the liver (cirrhosis).

If you have early-stage liver disease (fatty liver or mild hepatitis), you may not get any symptoms. As the condition progresses, you may feel sick and generally unwell, feel tired all the time or get pain over your liver. You can also develop jaundice, where your skin and the whites of your eyes go yellow. In severe cases your liver may fail completely.

Learn more about symptoms associated with drinking too much alcohol.

Alcohol causing even more health havoc

In addition to the above main alcohol-related conditions, drinking too much alcohol can also cause many other medical problems. These include:

Read about the causes of alcohol-related conditions.

What tests will I need?

Alcoholic liver disease is diagnosed by a doctor taking a careful history of your drinking habits, a physical examination and tests such as blood tests and liver scans. Sometimes your doctor will recommend you have a liver biopsy, where a small sample of the liver is removed to look at under a microscope. Discover more about how liver problems associated with drinking too much alcohol are diagnosed.

What's the treatment?

If you have alcoholic liver disease then you must stop drinking completely. Fatty liver and mild alcoholic hepatitis usually recover if you can manage this. Also, mild cirrhosis will often not progress if alcohol is avoided for life. In severe cases, however, where liver scarring is extensive, a liver transplant may be the only possible treatment option.

If you feel that you are drinking more alcohol than you should, or that you cannot stop drinking, then treatment and support are available. Learn about treatment options for conditions caused by drinking too much alcohol. Remember that prevention is the best option.

Next: Symptoms

Did you find this information useful?

Author:
Dr Roger Henderson
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Laurence Knott
Document ID:
4395 (v47)
Last Checked:
11 May 2017
Next Review:
10 May 2020
The Information Standard - certified member

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.