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Signs of Liver Damage from Alcohol

signs of liver damage from alcohol

Your stomach has been hurting lately. You have this weird, persistent pain in the upper right side of your abdomen, and lately, you’ve felt exhausted and generally sick. You’ve been losing weight over the past couple of months without even trying, and your urine is a dark color now. The past few days, you’ve been plagued with vomiting and diarrhea. What’s going on?

These can be symptoms of many health conditions, but if you have these symptoms and regularly drink large amounts of alcohol, it’s worth considering you might have liver damage from alcohol. Now what? 

You’ll have to see a doctor with your concerns for a proper diagnosis, but no longer drinking will be instrumental in your liver’s ability to heal. For most with liver damage from alcohol, that’s easier said than done, because an alcohol use disorder may be at play. At SUN Behavioral Health Houston, we’re here to help 24/7. Even if it’s 1 AM when you decide you’re ready to get help, we’ll be on standby, ready to take you in.

It’s important to know you’re not alone. 18% of adults in Houston reported binge drinking in 2021. While some of them develop liver damage, plenty of them don’t. Here’s everything you need to know about the signs of liver damage from alcohol, and how to spot them in yourself and others.

Alcohol and the Liver: How Do They Relate to Each Other?

The liver is the largest organ in your body and has multiple functions, including processing nutrients from food, filtering out bacteria through the body, and processing medications. Of course, the most well-known function of the liver is processing alcohol.

The alcohol in your system gets absorbed through other organs in your body and then flows through your bloodstream to your liver. There, enzymes break down the alcohol, turning it into a chemical that is easier for the body to process called acetaldehyde. Then, another enzyme breaks it down further into acetate. After that, it’s even further processed until it can exit your body in the form of water and carbon dioxide.

Everyone’s liver has a certain amount of alcohol it can handle, and once you surpass that point, it can cause liver damage. 

early signs alcohol icliver damage

What Can Happen to Your Liver if You Drink Too Much Alcohol?

The liver can properly process about one alcoholic drink per hour. More than that and it has to work overtime to process the alcohol, which is already naturally toxic to it. This can lead to fatty tissue around the liver, inflammation, and eventually scarring, which can become incredibly dangerous. The more you drink, the worse the conditions for your liver will get.

Liver conditions caused by alcohol are commonly referred to as alcoholic liver disease (ALD). There are three main stages of alcoholic liver disease, and all three of them fall under the ALD umbrella.

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Also known as steatosis, alcoholic fatty liver disease is when fat begins to build up in liver cells. This can cause an enlarged liver. Thankfully, alcoholic fatty liver disease is a reversible condition if the person stops drinking alcohol. The main problem is that alcoholic fatty liver disease doesn’t always present with symptoms, so it can be hard to detect early without a doctor looking for it.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

The second stage of alcoholic liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, is when the liver becomes inflamed, and scar tissue starts to develop. This stage of alcoholic liver disease is most common after long-term heavy drinking, but can also come on more suddenly. Liver cells begin to die, and less blood flows to the liver. If the person with alcoholic hepatitis continues to drink, it can cause complete liver failure, which is fatal without treatment. Abstaining from alcohol can lessen symptoms and stop the illness from progressing, but if you have alcoholic hepatitis, you will never be able to safely drink alcohol again.

Alcoholic Cirrhosis

The third stage of ALD is alcoholic cirrhosis, where heavy scar tissue forms around the liver, replacing living tissue. This is due to the liver repeatedly “injuring” itself trying to process an excess of alcohol. It decreases liver function significantly. The worse the cirrhosis becomes, the less the liver can do its job, and the more life-threatening it becomes. Stopping alcohol consumption won’t reverse the damage of alcoholic cirrhosis, but it will slow down the progression of the illness, or prevent further damage. Continuing to drink with alcoholic cirrhosis practically guarantees fatal liver cancer or failure.

What Are the Noticeable Signs of Liver Damage from Alcohol?

Early signs of liver damage from alcohol can be difficult to spot, especially because any symptoms that do manifest are the same as many other illnesses. For example, the most common signs of fatty liver disease are tiredness, weakness, and pain or discomfort in the upper right side of the abdomen, where the liver is located. Sometimes weight loss occurs at this stage as well.

It’s easier to recognize you have a problem if you have alcoholic hepatitis. The most common symptom is yellowing of the skin and eyes, which can be harder to detect in darker-skinned people. Tiredness and weakness will likely be a part of this stage, as well as low-grade fever, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, and stomach tenderness. The worse alcoholic hepatitis gets, the worse the symptoms get as well. 

Severe alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis share the same symptoms, including fluid buildup in the abdomen and/or legs, confusion due to the accumulation of toxins in the body that the liver is unable to process, easier bruising and bleeding, and liver and kidney failure.

How Is Liver Damage from Alcohol Use Treated?

While you can stop drinking to reduce the chances or impact of alcoholic liver disease, it will be important to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment as well. They will most likely perform a blood test to see if the chemical makeup in your blood indicates a healthy liver, but liver biopsies, CT scans, ultrasounds, and MRIs are also viable ways to detect alcoholic liver disease, depending on the severity of damage to your liver. 

After that, your doctor may suggest vitamins, dietary changes, and medications to aid your liver in healing and treat any lingering symptoms of your illness. 

Regardless of the stage of damage your liver is in, your doctor will undoubtedly want you to stop consuming alcohol. If you have a serious case of liver damage, you may even need a liver transplant, but you won’t be considered for one unless you haven’t consumed alcohol for six months beforehand. Some in the medical community are working to change this, but it is the requirement for now.

Sometimes, heavy alcohol consumption can cause a lot of shame, especially when you’re speaking to a doctor, who you fear may scold you for your drinking habits. In the case of alcoholic liver disease, however, honesty is vital to receiving the help you need to recover from your illness. Your doctor will likely have resources for you and may suggest an alcohol detox program to help you safely get the alcohol out of your system.

signs of liver damage from alcohol

Seek Help for Alcohol Use Disorder in Houston, Texas

Chances are, if you have a serious case of alcoholic liver disease, you have more to recover from than just liver damage. You may have an alcohol use disorder, and just taking the first step toward healing your liver is incredibly difficult. You’re likely used to drinking alcohol often, and stopping is a huge lifestyle change at the very least, if not a task that seems impossible. It’s not impossible, though, and you don’t have to heal from your alcohol use disorder alone.

At SUN Behavioral Health Houston, we’re ready to help you overcome your alcohol use disorder. With intensive outpatient services in the evenings, and telehealth appointments accessible as well, care is available to you whenever and wherever in the Houston area you may need it. We’ll work with you in a safe, compassionate environment, to heal both your liver and your life from alcohol use. Give us a call today at 713-796-2273 to get started.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can the liver recover from alcohol damage?

It depends on how much alcohol has damaged the liver. Alcoholic fatty liver disease is fully reversible if you stop drinking alcohol. Hepatitis and cirrhosis, on the other hand, are rarely reversible, though they usually stop progressing if you stop drinking.

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