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The liver

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

Types of liver disease caused by alcohol include:

  • 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 most common type of alcoholic liver disease. Fat builds up in the liver, which stops the liver from working properly.

Inflammation of the liver (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 or death

Around 1 in 3 people who develop severe alcoholic hepatitis will die.

Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)

Around 1 in 5 heavy drinkers have scarring of their liver (cirrhosis).

Alcohol changes the chemicals that break down and remove scar tissue. This means that scar tissue builds up in the liver.

Scar tissue replaces normal healthy cells. This means that the liver can’t work properly and can fail, leading to death.

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 don't notice symptoms until it’s too late.

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.

If you have significant liver scarring or cirrhosis, you should 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

page last reviewed: 08/11/2019
next review due: 08/11/2022