The most important things to know about alcoholism and liver disease are that any amount of alcohol consumption can cause liver damage, and up to half of people who have liver disease are asymptomatic and do not know they have liver disease.
If an individual does have symptoms of liver disease, many of the symptoms, such as fatigue and itching, are unspecific and may not immediately be recognized as symptoms of liver disease.
Although any amount of alcohol can cause liver damage, a rule of thumb is that a man should drink no more than 3-4 drinks in a day and a woman should drink no more than 1-2 drinks in a day to prevent liver damage. The reason for the discrepancy between genders is that men are able to metabolize alcohol more efficiently than women due to their body size and the presence of certain enzymes.
If a person already has a damaged liver or has a liver disease such as Hepatitis B or C, then that person should abstain from drinking alcohol completely and refrain from their alcoholism behavior in order to avoid further liver damage.
A drink is defined as one shot, or 1 ¼ ounces, of hard liquor, or four ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer. Beer and wine are no better or worse than hard liquor in terms of causing liver damage.
The liver is a particularly unique organ in that it is the only organ in the body that is able to regenerate itself without forming scar tissue. Up to half of the liver can be damaged or destroyed, and the liver will regenerate in 30 days. However, the liver must be allowed to regenerate without further damage being done. If a person drinks enough to cause severe liver damage and continues to drink, the liver will begin to form scar tissue instead (with the prolonged alcoholism) .
The three stages of liver disease due to alcoholism are alcoholic fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis. The first stage, alcoholic fatty liver, often has no symptoms and can occur after as little as a week of heavy drinking, although the condition is reversible if the person abstains from alcohol completely for a few weeks.
The second stage, alcoholic hepatitis, is different from viral hepatitis such as Hepatitis A, B, or C. Hepatitis as a generic term refers to inflammation of the liver, and alcoholic hepatitis is liver inflammation caused by alcoholism. Alcoholic hepatitis generally occurs after years of heavy drinking but in rarer instances can occur after binge drinking. This condition is also reversible, but the person must abstain from alcohol completely for years.
Cirrhosis, the final stage of alcoholic liver disease, is more serious. It is life-threatening and irreversible and occurs when the liver has been inflamed for a very long time and begins to form scar tissue. Although cirrhosis is irreversible, an alcoholic who abstains from drinking can prevent further damage to the liver and perhaps even improve liver function over time. The only cure for cirrhosis is a liver transplant.
How long it takes before an alcoholic shows signs of liver damage depends on the amount the person drinks, the length of time the person has been drinking, gender, and factors unique to the individual such as genetics, gender, extra body weight in women, diet, vitamin deficiencies or an overabundance of iron, the presence of other liver diseases, and exposure to other toxins such as large amounts of acetominophen, which is found in over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol and is safe in the small doses that are recommended.
Generally speaking, liver damage caused by alcoholism can appear after 5-10 years, although it is more common for it to take 20-30 years. Some alcoholics appear to never develop end-stage liver disease, a phenomenon experts cannot fully comprehend. According to statistics from the National Health Services in Great Britain, 90-100% of heavy drinkers will develop fatty liver. Of those, 25% will develop alcoholic hepatitis, and 20% will eventually develop cirrhosis.
Alcoholism can have devastating health consequences. If you or a loved one has a drinking problem, it is not too late to prevent current health problems from worsening or even reverse some of the damage caused by alcoholism. Please get help now for you or your loved one before it is too late.