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How alcohol affects the liver

The liver breaks down most of the alcohol you drink so that it can be removed from the body.

This process creates substances that are more harmful than alcohol. Large amounts of these substances can damage liver cells and cause serious liver disease.

Alcohol causes 4 out of 5 deaths from liver disease.

Types of liver disease caused by alcohol include:

  • fatty liver (steatosis)
  • inflammation of the liver (alcoholic hepatitis)
  • acute alcoholic hepatitis
  • scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)
  • liver failure

Fatty liver (steatosis)

Fatty liver is the most common type of alcohol-related liver disease. Fat builds up in the liver and stops it from working properly. This can lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis).

Inflammation of the liver (alcoholic hepatitis)

About a third of people with fatty liver will develop a mild or moderate inflammation of the liver. This is 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 of the liver can cause:

  • a loss of appetite
  • sickness
  • tummy pain
  • jaundice (yellow skin)
  • liver failure
  • cirrhosis

Around 1 in 3 people who develop acute alcoholic hepatitis will die from it.

Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)

Around 1 in 5 heavy drinkers have cirrhosis.

Fat and inflammation in the liver lead to scarring. When the scarring is severe, this is called cirrhosis.

Scar tissue replaces healthy cells. This means that the liver cannot work properly and can fail. Liver failure is a life-threatening condition.

Cirrhosis may not cause symptoms.

Symptoms of liver cirrhosis include:

  • feeling unwell
  • vomiting blood
  • swollen tummy
  • loss of appetite
  • itching
  • muscle cramps

Most people who develop cirrhosis and liver failure do not notice symptoms until it’s too late.

Cirrhosis can also be caused by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Reducing the risk of liver damage

You can reduce the risk of liver damage by cutting down or giving up alcohol. All liver diseases improve from giving up alcohol.

Important

If you have significant liver scarring or cirrhosis, do not drink alcohol.

Fatty liver can be reversed and further damage avoided by not drinking alcohol.

There is no cure for cirrhosis. But cutting out alcohol completely gives a much better chance of survival. You can live for decades with cirrhosis, if you give up alcohol in time.

Things that reduce the impact of liver disease include:

  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • not smoking
  • getting regular, adequate exercise
  • eating a balanced diet and avoiding processed food
  • drinking coffee
  • getting sunlight - a low vitamin D level is bad for liver diseases

Healthy eating

Active living

Non-urgent advice: Get help with problem alcohol use

Freephone 1800 459 459 for confidential advice

Page last reviewed: 20 September 2022
Next review due: 20 September 2025