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What is Alcoholic Hepatitis?

Dr. Ted Bender, Ph.D., LCDC

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Ted Bender, Ph.D., LCDC

April 19, 2019

Alcoholic hepatitis is a condition that causes inflammation in the liver. Stopping drinking and seeking help is the best way to prevent further damage caused by alcoholic hepatitis.

What is Alcoholic Hepatitis?

Alcoholic hepatitis is when the liver becomes inflamed due to excessive alcohol consumption. It most often occurs when a heavy amount of alcohol drinks regularly for an extended period of time. It can also be brought about by binge drinking.

The liver is responsible for removing toxins from the body. Long periods of heavy drinking can cause inflammation in the liver which results in chronic scarring. Scarring in the liver can prevent this organ from functioning properly.

When someone is diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis, he or she must stop drinking immediately. Not doing so can lead to other health problems that include further liver damage and death.

What Are The Symptoms Of Alcoholic Hepatitis?

Whether someone experiences symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis will depend on the extent of damage to the liver. A mild case of alcoholic hepatitis may not show any symptoms. The most common symptom seen with this condition is jaundice, or yellow skin and whites of the eyes.

Other symptoms that may arise with alcoholic hepatitis include:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • tenderness in the abdomen
  • changes in appetite
  • weight loss
  • dry mouth
  • bruising or bleeding easily
  • malnutrition

When severe, alcoholic hepatitis may also result in the following symptoms:

  • fluid retention in the stomach
  • mental impairment such as confusion and behavior changes
  • liver or kidney failure

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What Are The Causes Of Alcoholic Hepatitis?

Alcoholic hepatitis is caused by damage to the liver due to heavy drinking. However, how alcohol damages the liver is unclear.

The following influence the development of alcoholic hepatitis:

  • extremely toxic chemicals that are produced when the body breaks down alcohol
  • inflammation as a result of these chemicals
  • damage to the liver cells caused by inflammation
  • scars that result from the damaged liver tissue
  • chronic scarring (cirrhosis) in the liver

Additionally, having another form of hepatitis can increase the chances of developing alcoholic hepatitis. People who are malnourished are also more likely to develop this condition. Malnutrition adds to the damage that alcohol causes in the liver cells.

What Are The Risk Factors Of Developing Alcoholic Hepatitis?

It’s estimated that only around 35 percent of long-term heavy drinkers will develop alcoholic hepatitis. This means that not everyone who drinks excessively will experience this condition.

Some factors that may impact whether someone develops alcoholic hepatitis include:

  • having other forms of hepatitis, such as hepatitis B or C
  • malnourishment
  • genetic factors that influence how alcohol is broken down in the body
  • drinking on an empty stomach
  • excess weight
  • Ethnicity and race
  • Binge drinking

It’s been shown that women tend to be more prone to developing this condition than men. Additionally, alcoholic hepatitis is most likely to occur in people ages 40 to 60.

Diagnosing Alcoholic Hepatitis

If you are experiencing symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis, it’s important to visit your doctor to be tested for this condition. Your physician will ask you about your alcohol consumption and medical history.

Your doctor may also perform:

  • a physical exam to check for an enlarged spleen or liver
  • blood tests to check blood count and liver enzymes
  • liver biopsy
  • CT scan of the abdomen
  • liver ultrasound

If you are diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis, your doctor will formulate a treatment plan based on the severity of your condition. The first step in treating this condition is to stop drinking entirely.

Treatment For Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis can cause lasting damage to the liver. This can result in a number of health problems and can be fatal if not treated.

Depending on the severity of the condition, treatment may include:

  • medications to restore liver function and reduce inflammation
  • vitamins and other supplements to reverse malnutrition
  • diet changes
  • antibiotics to treat any infections
  • a liver transplant

No matter how severe a person’s condition may be, the first step in treating alcoholic hepatitis is to avoid alcohol. For those with an alcohol use disorder, this can mean seeking formal treatment such as an inpatient treatment program.

To learn more about alcoholic hepatitis and treatment options for this condition, contact our treatment specialists today.

Mayo Clinic - Alcoholic hepatitis: Overview

World Journal of Hepatology - Emerging concepts in alcoholic hepatitis

Cleveland Clinic - Alcoholic Liver Disease

American Liver Foundation - Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

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