Alcohol's effects on the liver
The liver breaks down most of the alcohol that you drink so that it can be removed from the body.
Breaking down alcohol creates substances that are even more harmful than alcohol. These substances can damage liver cells and cause serious liver disease.
Alcohol causes 4 out of 5 deaths from liver disease.
How can alcohol damage the liver?
Liver disease due to alcohol includes:
- Fatty liver (steatosis)
- Inflammation of the liver (hepatitis)
- Acute alcoholic hepatitis
- Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)
- Liver failure and death
Fatty liver (steatosis)
Fatty liver is the earliest and most common form of alcoholic liver disease. Fat builds up in the liver, which stops the liver from working properly. It can lead to dangerous inflammations, like alcoholic hepatitis.
Inflammation of the liver (hepatitis)
About a third of people with fatty liver will develop a mild or moderate inflammation of the liver called alcoholic hepatitis. Hepatitis may not cause any symptoms at first, so you may not realise that you have it.
Acute alcoholic hepatitis
More serious and life-threatening inflammation can cause as loss of appetite, sickness, tummy pain and yellow skin (jaundice) and even liver failure or death. Around 1 in 3 people who develop severe alcoholic hepatitis will will die during that admission to hospital.
Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)
Around 1 in 5 heavy drinkers have scarring of their liver (cirrhosis).1 Alcohol changes the chemicals that normally break down and remove the scar tissue, so that scar tissue builds up in the liver.
Scar tissue replaces normal healthy cells, so the liver can’t work properly and will usually fail, leading to death.
Cirrhosis may not cause symptoms. Symptoms include feeling unwell, vomiting blood, swollen tummy, loss of appetite, itching and muscle cramps.
Unfortunately most people who develop cirrhosis and liver failure don't have warning symptoms until it’s too late.
How much alcohol increases my risk of liver disease?
Most heavy drinkers have a build-up of harmful fat and inflammation in their livers. Moderate and binge drinking (drinking 6 or more standard drinks in one sitting) can also cause fat to build up in the liver.
Drinking above the low risk guidelines roughly doubles your risk of cirrhosis and increases your risk of liver cancer.
If you drink 3 standard drinks a day, you have 3 times the risk of liver disease
If you drink 6 standard drinks a day, you have 7 times the risk of developing liver disease
The rate of liver disease among young people aged 15-34 more than doubled between 1995 and 2013²
What can I do to reduce my risk?
Cut down or give up alcohol
- All liver diseases improve from stopping alcohol intake.
- Fatty liver can be reversed and further damage avoided if you stop drinking.
- Alcoholic hepatitis is usually reversible if you stop drinking.
- There is no cure for cirrhosis, but sufferers who stop drinking completely have a much better survival.
Stay well within the low-risk drinking level to reduce the risk of problems. If you already have advanced liver damage, you are best to give up alcohol completely to avoid further damage.
Have a healthy lifestyle
Maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding becoming overweight or obese, avoid smoking, taking regular adequate exercise and eating a balanced diet can help you to stay well and reduce the impact of liver disease.
Video: Alcohol and digestive cancers
2 Mongan, D. and Long, J. (2016). Alcohol in Ireland: consumption harm cost and policy response. Health Research Board, Dublin