Alcoholic hepatitis is the clinical term for alcohol-induced liver inflammation or swelling that is accompanied by the destruction of liver cells. This condition is a type of alcohol-related liver disease, caused by the toxic chemicals released into the liver when it metabolizes alcohol.
When someone develops symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis, their best option is to stop drinking. Continuing to consume alcohol may lead to additional health problems, such as liver cirrhosis (scarring), excessive bleeding and, eventually, liver failure.
Individuals who struggle with alcohol abuse or addiction may not be able to stop drinking on their own and may need the help of a formal alcohol addiction treatment program. There are many treatment options for people who no longer wish to drink.
What Causes Alcoholic Hepatitis?
Although alcoholic hepatitis is caused, at least in part, by alcohol consumption, researchers are still not sure of its exact cause. Alcoholic hepatitis is most likely to occur in individuals who have participated in heavy drinking over many years. However, it does not occur in all heavy drinkers and may also develop in people who only drink in moderation.
Researchers are still not sure why alcohol affects some people more than others, but they believe that alcohol-related liver disease may have more than one possible cause.
Risk Factors For Developing Alcoholic Hepatitis
Because alcoholic hepatitis only occurs in about 35 percent of heavy drinkers, other factors may influence the chances someone will develop this condition. These risk factors can include:
- genetic factors which affect the way an individual’s body processes alcohol
- the presence of liver infections or other liver diseases such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and hemochromatosis
malnutrition or obesity
- the timing of alcohol consumption to eating (as consuming alcohol with food slows the rate at which the body can metabolize it)
Women are more likely than men to develop alcoholic hepatitis, which is thought to be due to the differences in how their bodies absorb and break down alcohol.
Symptoms Of Alcoholic Hepatitis
Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis are often mild and mistaken for symptoms of other common health conditions. For individuals who consume alcohol on a regular basis, it is essential to know these symptoms to be more aware of their actual cause.
Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis commonly include:
- fever, which is often low-grade (only slightly above average)
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of eyes)
- nausea and vomiting
- easily bleeding or bruising
- changes in, or loss of, appetite
- fatigue and weakness
- weight loss
- abdominal pain and tenderness
Symptoms that typically occur in more severe cases of alcoholic hepatitis include:
- changes in mental state, such as confusion due to toxin build up
- fluid accumulation in the abdomen (ascites)
- kidney and liver failure
If someone develops one or more of these symptoms, they should contact their doctor to receive a proper diagnosis.
How Is Alcoholic Hepatitis Diagnosed?
Usually, someone who exhibits signs of alcoholic hepatitis will attend a doctor appointment where their doctor will perform a physical examination and a health history, including alcohol consumption. After examining the individual for an enlarged or swollen liver or spleen, they may decide to order more tests to confirm the diagnosis.
Additional alcoholic hepatitis testing may include:
- complete blood count (CBC)
- liver function test
- blood clotting tests
- abdominal CT scan
- ultrasound of the liver
If these tests do not yield conclusive results, doctors may order a liver biopsy to confirm a diagnosis of alcoholic hepatitis. A liver biopsy is an invasive procedure that does have some risks. This procedure requires the doctor to remove a tissue sample from the liver.
To perform a liver biopsy a large biopsy needle is used to puncture the liver. The tissue sample collected can then show the severity and type of liver disease someone has.
Possible Complications Of Alcoholic Hepatitis
Mild cases of alcoholic hepatitis can be challenging to identify and may go on for years causing progressive liver damage which may be reversible, in some cases, if the individual ceases drinking alcohol.
The progressive damage of mild alcoholic hepatitis may suddenly become severe and quickly lead to potentially life-threatening consequences. Binge drinking is one circumstance that may cause mild alcoholic hepatitis to develop into a more severe form of the condition.
If left untreated, severe alcoholic hepatitis can progress into a condition known as alcohol-related cirrhosis—the most severe type of alcohol-related liver disease.
Alcoholic hepatitis can also lead to a condition called hepatic encephalopathy, which occurs when the toxins usually filtered by the liver remain in the bloodstream. Prolonged exposure to these toxins can eventually lead to brain damage and, in some circumstances, coma.
Almost all individuals who are diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis are malnourished. Regularly consuming large amounts of alcohol can suppress an individual’s appetite, and people who participate in heavy drinking may even get most of their calories from alcohol.
Can Alcoholic Hepatitis Be Prevented?
The most sure way to prevent alcoholic hepatitis is to avoid alcohol, or at least drink only in moderation (one drink per day for women, two drinks per day for men). Other ways to help prevent this condition include maintaining a healthy weight, eating a low-sodium diet and protecting against hepatitis B and C.
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Hepatitis B and C are blood-borne diseases that can be spread through the sharing of needles or through other bodily fluids that may be exchanged during unprotected sex. Only vaccines are available for treating hepatitis B or C. There is no known cure for these diseases.
Finding Treatment For Alcoholic Hepatitis
If an individual receives a diagnosis of alcoholic hepatitis, it is vital that they stop drinking alcohol. Alcoholic hepatitis is a condition caused and made worse by continued alcohol consumption but may be reversible if caught early on.
However, once significant damage has been done to the liver there will be no way to fix it. If it is too late to reverse liver damage, it is still necessary to quit drinking to prevent further possible damage.
People struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction should contact their doctor or an addiction treatment specialist to explore different treatment options available to them. Treatment for alcoholic hepatitis is often a combination of medication-assisted treatments and talk therapies.