Alcohol use affects many bodily major organ systems, but excessive use of alcohol can cause extensive physical damage particularly to the liver. According to WebMD, the liver acts as the body’s primary blood filter and works to detoxify alcohol, drugs, and other potentially harmful chemicals. If the liver doesn’t function properly, you are more susceptible to infection. The heavy, long-term use of alcohol over time can result in extensive liver damage such as liver inflammation, excessive fat (or “fatty liver”), and a type of scarring called cirrhosis.
Signs of Liver Disease
Symptoms of liver disease affect multiple systems of the body and can indicate digestive problems, skin problems, and harmful effects on the nervous system. Common physical conditions related to liver disease include:
- Abdominal pain, swelling
- Weight loss
- Nausea, vomiting
- Dry mouth
- Bleeding of esophagus
- Yellowing of skin or eyes
- Red spider-like veins
- Changes in skin color
- Redness, numbness in extremities
- Difficulty thinking
- Increased fluid in abdomen
- Bleeding of esophagus and stomach
- Enlarged spleen
- Brain damage and coma
- Kidney failure
- Liver cancer
Liver Damage Consequences
Alcoholic liver disease can affect the body in many ways, causing serious medical problems to other systems besides the liver. Damage to organs and health conditions include:
Stages of Liver Disease
The Liver Foundation lists three primary types of liver disease that result from alcohol abuse: Fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and alcoholic cirrhosis.
Fatty Liver Disease
Alcoholic fatty liver disease occurs when too much fat is deposited in the cells of the liver. This is typically the first stage of liver disease to result from alcoholism. Fatty liver disease typically doesn’t show any symptoms, but can sometimes cause tiredness, weakness, and pain in the right abdomen. At this stage, liver disease can often be reversed by completely abstaining from alcohol.
Alcoholic hepatitis involves increased fat in the liver, accompanied by inflammation and mild scarring. This stage of liver disease often follows fatty liver disease; about 55 percent of people who have alcoholic hepatitis already have fatty liver disease. As many as 35 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis. Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include loss of appetite, queasiness, vomiting, stomach pain, raised body temperature, and jaundice. At this stage of liver disease, blood tests may begin to show signs of abnormality.
Alcoholic cirrhosis is the final stage of liver disease. At this stage, the liver shows severe scarring and can no longer function normally. About 10-20 percent of those who drink heavily advance to cirrhosis of the liver. Once liver damage progresses to this point, it cannot be reversed by abstaining from alcohol, although ceasing alcohol use may improve symptoms.
Progression of Disease
Many people suffering from alcohol-induced liver disease progress through the stages of liver disease, starting with fatty liver disease, moving on to alcoholic hepatitis, and finally progressing to alcoholic cirrhosis, although not everyone experiences every phase of the disease.
Treating Liver Disease
Treatment for liver disease involves a healthy diet and completely abstaining from alcohol. At the early stages of liver disease, these lifestyle changes can reverse some of the damage. If the damage is too severe to be reversed and is causing life-threatening complications, a liver transplant may be necessary.
Liver transplants may not be approved for those who continue to abuse alcohol. Oftentimes, a history of sobriety is needed prior to such a major surgery. Medications are sometimes used to manage the symptoms and medical complications caused by liver disease. If liver disease is suspected, prompt medical treatment is needed to avoid potentially irreversible and lifelong health complications.
Other Effects of Alcohol on Body
Alcohol can damage many other major organs besides the liver. Alcohol can negatively impact the brain, heart, pancreas, and immune system.
Damage to Brain
In the brain, alcohol interferes with communication pathways, causing damage that may be permanent. This brain damage can cause mood swings, changes in behavior, difficulty thinking, and trouble with coordination. Large amounts of alcohol can also damage the heart. Alcohol can weaken the heart muscles, causing a condition known as cardiomyopathy. It can also cause arrhythmias, stroke, and high blood pressure. Frequent exposure to alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances, which cause inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels.
Without question, alcoholism causes various health conditions, many of which can be quite severe, even leading to death. The best way to avoid such long-term health complications is via comprehensive addiction treatment that includes medical detox. Since alcohol withdrawal can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, at-home detox attempts are unsafe. Through therapy that addresses the root causes that led to alcohol abuse and addiction in the first place, individuals can leave alcohol in their past and embrace overall wellness.