Hepatitis and Alcoholic Liver Disease
Long term alcohol abuse can lead to a variety of health complications. It is believed that drinking too much alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable deaths. One of the more serious of these health complications is alcoholic hepatitis. This involves an inflammation of the liver which can cause destruction in the organ. Alcoholic hepatitis is often an early stage of alcoholic liver disease. If the alcohol abuse continues it leads to liver cirrhosis. Alcoholic hepatitis can be fatal but it will usually resolve with appropriate treatment. Any individual who develops this condition should avoid drinking alcohol again in the future.
Importance of the Liver
Hepatitis involves an inflammation of the liver. This body organ is vital for human survival because it is responsible for about 500 different functions including:
* Waste excretion
* Manufactures bile
* Converts and stores excess glucose
* Hormone regulation
* Makes cholesterol and some proteins
* Removes toxins from the bloodstream
* Has a role in immunity
* Important function in blood clotting
* Needed for fat digestion
The liver is a remarkable organ because of its ability to put up with a lot of abuse. It can rejuvenate itself so long as there is not too much damage. Once the destruction in the liver reaches a certain point it will no longer be able to repair the damage. Severe or repeated episodes of alcoholic hepatitis may lead to irreparable destruction.
Causes of Alcoholic Hepatitis
There are a number of possible causes for alcoholic hepatitis. The alcohol itself is a toxic substance that can damage liver cells and cause inflammation. Another contributing factor is that most alcoholics will have poor nutrition. This lack of proper nutrients in the body can also lead to damage of the liver cells.
It is not fully understood why some heavy drinkers will develop hepatitis while others do not. It may be that some individuals are more at risk of it than others. There may be a genetic component that makes some heavy drinkers more likely to develop the condition.
Other Types of Hepatitis
Hepatitis can occur due to other reasons than alcohol including:
* Viral hepatitis
* Non viral infections such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
* Different drugs can cause this type of liver inflammation
* Circulatory problems can lead to ischemic hepatitis
* Metabolic diseases
* Hepatitis due to pregnancy
* Auto immune diseases
* Toxic poisoning
Any heavy drinker who has ever developed any of other types of hepatitis will be more likely to suffer serious liver damage. Even if the hepatitis is not due to alcohol abuse it is important that such people only ever drink in moderation.
Symptoms of Alcoholic Hepatitis
The symptoms associated with this condition may vary in severity. In mild cases it may just be dismissed as some type of flu bug. The symptoms can include:
* Nausea and vomiting
* Loss of appetite
* Abdominal pain
* Abdominal swelling
Diagnostic Tests for Alcoholic Hepatitis
A blood test to examine liver function (LFTs) can be enough to indicate hepatitis. The inflammation will be indentified by high levels of ALT and AST in the blood. The doctor may also decide to have a closer look at the liver for damage. This involves taking a biopsy using a long needle which is inserted into the organ. The assessment will also involve documenting the individual’s drinking history to establish that this is the cause.
Alcoholic Liver Disease
If the individual with hepatitis continues to abuse alcohol it can develop into alcoholic liver disease. This is a chronic condition that involves 3 stages:
* The first stage involves a buildup of fatty acids in the liver. This can occur even if the individual has only been drinking heavily for a few days. This is referred to as alcoholic fatty liver disease. There are usually no symptoms and the liver will return to normal if the person stops abusing alcohol at this point. It is estimated that about 90% of heavy drinkers will develop fatty liver but most will never be aware of it.
* The second stage of alcoholic liver disease is hepatitis. This can be due to chronic alcohol abuse or because the individual has been recently drinking heavily. The inflammation caused by hepatitis will cause damage to the liver but it is usually reversible so long as no further abuse occurs.
* The final stage of alcoholic liver disease is cirrhosis. The liver has been damaged so much by inflammation that it is unable to function properly. Once the liver has suffered excessive damage it is unable to rejuvenate. The only treatment in severe cirrhosis is a liver transplant. Even if cirrhosis develops the individual can greatly increase their chances of survival if they immediately stop drinking alcohol.
Treatment for Alcoholic Hepatitis
There are medications that will help reduce the inflammation in the liver. This can include drugs such as corticosteroids. The number one priority though will be for the individual to stop drinking. The inflammation will be impossible to manage if the person continues to abuse alcohol. It is also usually necessary for the individual to make diet changes in order to rectify any malnutrition that contributing to the liver problems. It is usual for nutritional supplements to be prescribed.
Many alcoholics will find it difficult to stop drinking without help. If they have been abusing alcohol for many years they may also be at risk of severe withdrawal symptoms. They may need to be monitored medically during the withdrawal period. Those who do manage to give up their addiction will usually require continued support to reduce the risk of relapse. Attendance at a rehab can give the individual an opportunity develops the skills needed to build a life in recovery. Some people in recovery benefit from long-term commitment to a support group.
Alternative Therapies for Alcoholic Liver Disease
Milk Thistle is an alternative therapy that some people claim is a possible cure for alcoholic liver disease. It is believed to help reduce inflammation and improve liver function. It is highly unlikely that this plant can cure liver disease but it may have medicinal properties. Those research articles that support the benefits of the plant tend to be poorly designed. More research will be needed before any conclusions can be reached on its usefulness. It would be unwise for any heavy drinker to assume that taking this supplement is going to prevent them from developing liver disease.
Possible Complications of Hepatitis
There are a number of possible complications that can occur because of this condition:
* Cirrhosis due to excessive scarring
* Bleeding esophageal varices can be a life threatening event. It occurs when scar tissue in the liver prevents normal blood flow. The built up pressure causes veins to become enlarged in the esophagus. If such veins burst it can lead to death unless the hemorrhage is managed quickly.
* Jaundice occurs because the liver is no longer able to remove old blood cells from the body. It causes the skin and eyeballs to develop a yellow or orangey color.
* Encephalopathy occurs when the liver is unable to break down toxins. This can lead to changes in mental functioning and in some cases coma. The individual with encephalopathy can become very confused and agitated.
* Ascites is a built up of fluids in the abdominal area. This can cause discomfort and hinder mobility.
Prevention of Alcoholic Hepatitis
The key to preventing this condition is to only drink in moderation and to maintain a healthy diet. The safe limits for drinking alcohol are:
* Men between the ages of 21 and 65 should not consume more than 2 drinks per day. A drink refers to the equivalent of a glass of wine or a standard beer.
* Women and anyone over the age of 65 should stick to 1 drink per day.
* Anyone under the age of 21 should avoid alcohol
* If an individual has ever had a drink problem they should refrain from alcohol in the future