Hepatitis is inflammation or swelling of the liver. Alcoholic hepatitis is swelling of the liver that is caused by drinking alcohol. In most cases, alcoholic hepatitis is the result of years of heavy drinking.
But the relationship between how much alcohol is consumed and whether a particular person has alcoholic hepatitis is not clear, so some people who only drink moderately can also develop alcoholic hepatitis.
Alcoholic hepatitis is a condition that develops over time. The longer you drink, the more likely you are to develop liver inflammation. This can have serious consequences.
The liver is the heaviest organ in the body. It is located in the abdomen next to the stomach. The liver has many functions that are necessary for life including processing nutrients from food, removing toxins from the body, and building proteins. The body cannot function without the work of the liver.
Alcoholic hepatitis, like other types of hepatitis, can damage the liver and keep it from functioning effectively. When the liver is swollen, scar tissue can replace healthy cells in the liver. This condition is known as cirrhosis. Scarred tissue does not function like healthy tissue, so the more scarring the liver has, the less it is able to function.
When we drink alcohol, whether beer, wine, or other liquor, the process of digestion turns the ethanol in what we drink into toxic chemicals such as acetaldehyde. One function of the liver is to filter out toxic chemicals. But over time, large quantities of these chemicals can damage the liver and lead to hepatitis.
Scientists know that the chemicals in alcohol can damage the liver. But they do not know why some people who drink heavily have liver damage and others don’t. They believe these factors may also be involved:
• Genetics – Mutations or changes in certain genes may increase the risk of liver damage from alcohol. In some cases, the tendency to develop alcoholic hepatitis can run in the family.
• Other hepatitis – If you have another type of hepatitis, especially hepatitis C, drinking can increase the damage and cause more swelling in the liver.
• Poor nutrition – Many people who drink heavily have poor nutrition, possibly because they substitute alcohol for food or because the toxic chemicals in alcohol prevent their bodies from absorbing nutrients from the food they eat. Either way, the lack of good nutrition can increase liver damage.
• Gender – Women are more likely to develop alcoholic hepatitis than men.
It is important to note that you do not need to get drunk in order for this condition to develop. Alcoholic hepatitis can develop from occasional binge drinking large quantities of alcohol or from consistent drinking with or without becoming drunk.
Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include:
• Abdominal pain
• Jaundice (yellow color in the skin and eyes)
• Loss of appetite
• Increased thirst
• Nausea and vomiting
• Swelling of the legs
• Buildup of fluid in the abdomen which can result in increased waist size
• Mental confusion
If you are diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis, you must stop drinking alcohol to prevent further damage to your liver. If scarring has not occurred, the liver can gradually recover and return to full health. Once scarring occurs, it will not go away.
If you have symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis, or if you drink consistently large quantities of alcohol or binge drink, talk to your health care provider about the possible health risks for your liver.
Mayo Clinic. Alcoholic hepatitis. Web. September 11, 2011.
National Institutes of Health: Medline Plus. Alcoholic liver disease. Web. September 11, 2011.
About.com: Hepatitis. Why is the Liver So Important?. Web. September 11, 2011.
Reviewed September 13, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith