Does Drinking Alcohol Cause Cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis: Liver disease that can develop when your liver is repeatedly damaged.

Will this lead to cirrhosis?. Dave Dyet / stock.xchng

If you are wondering whether or not drinking alcohol can cause cirrhosis of the liver, it depends on just HOW much you are drinking.

The Liver

The liver carries out several necessary functions, including detoxifying harmful substances in your body, cleaning your blood and making vital nutrients. The liver is your largest internal organ. About the size of a football, it's located mainly in the upper right portion of your abdomen, beneath the diaphragm and above your stomach.

What is Cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis is a liver disease that can develop when your liver is repeatedly damaged. Much like the scar tissue that forms on your skin after a cut, the liver also forms scar tissue while repairing itself. A little scar tissue is no problem for the liver, but too much scarring interferes with how the liver works, and problems develop as a result. Several things can damage the liver and cause cirrhosis.

Some of the most common are chronic alcohol abuse and chronic infection with hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses.

Other possible causes include:

  • Iron buildup in the body (hemochromatosis)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Copper accumulated in the liver (Wilson's disease)
  • Poorly formed bile ducts (biliary atresia)
  • Inherited disorders of sugar metabolism (galactosemia or glycogen storage disease)
  • Genetic digestive disorder (Alagille syndrome)
  • Liver disease caused by your body's immune system (autoimmune hepatitis)
  • Destruction of the bile ducts (primary biliary cirrhosis)
  • Hardening and scarring of the bile ducts (primary sclerosing cholangitis)
  • Infection such schistosomiasis
  • Medications such as methotrexate

Symptoms

Cirrhosis often has no signs or symptoms until liver damage is extensive. When signs and symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Bleeding easily
  • Bruising easily
  • Itchy skin
  • Yellow discoloration in the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Fluid accumulation in your abdomen (ascites)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Swelling in your legs
  • Weight loss
  • Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
  • Spiderlike blood vessels on your skin
  • Redness in the palms of the hands
  • Testicular atrophy in men
  • Breast enlargement in men

Heavy Drinking and Cirrhosis

If you do not have liver disease, an occasional alcoholic drink probably won't cause cirrhosis. In fact, moderate drinking may even offer protective benefits such as lowering your risk of gallstones and heart attack, among other conditions. However, heavy drinking (defined as having  five or more drinks a day) is known to cause cirrhosis. This can develop into alcoholic liver disease.

Liver Disease

If you have an existing liver disease, such as chronic hepatitis, you are at increased risk for developing cirrhosis if you drink alcohol. Drinking alcohol may also increase your risk of developing hepatocellular cancer.

The liver damage done by cirrhosis generally can't be undone. But if liver cirrhosis is diagnosed early and the cause is treated, further damage can be limited and, rarely, reversed. If you already have cirrhosis or if you have chronic hepatitis, it is important to avoid alcohol.

Sources:

Dienstag, JL. "Chronic Hepatitis." Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine 17e. 2008.

Mukamal KJ. Risks and Benefits of Alcohol. UpToDate. Accessed: October 30, 2009.

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