Alcoholic Hepatitis

Written by Darla Burke | Published on October 19, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Alcoholic Hepatitis?

Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. It is typically caused by excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time. If you develop this condition, you must stop drinking alcohol. Continued drinking can lead to additional health problems, such as cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver or liver failure.

What Causes Alcoholic Hepatitis?

When alcohol is broken down (metabolized) in the liver, it produces highly toxic chemicals. These chemicals can scar the liver. This scarring then leads to inflammation and alcoholic hepatitis.

Although heavy drinking causes alcoholic hepatitis, doctors are not entirely sure why the condition develops. Alcoholic hepatitis only develops in a small number of heavy drinkers. It can also develop in people who are only moderate drinkers.

Because alcoholic hepatitis does not occur in all heavy drinkers, other factors may influence the development of this condition. These include:

  • genetic factors that affect how the body processes alcohol
  • the presence of other liver disorders, such as hepatitis C
  • malnutrition

Women are at a greater risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis. This may be a due to the differences in how the male and female bodies absorb and break down alcohol.

The Symptoms of Alcoholic Hepatitis

The symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis vary depending on the amount of damage that has occurred to the liver. If you have a mild case of the disease, you may not experience any symptoms. However as more damage occurs, you may begin to experience:

  • changes in appetite
  • dry mouth
  • weight loss
  • nausea and vomiting
  • pain or swelling in the abdomen
  • yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • fever
  • changes in your mental state, including confusion
  • fatigue

The symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis are similar to those caused by other health conditions. If you develop any of these symptoms, you should contact your doctor to get a proper diagnosis and begin treatment.

How Is Alcoholic Hepatitis Diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis, your doctor will ask you about your health history and alcohol consumption. Your doctor will also perform a physical exam to see if you have an enlarged liver or spleen. He or she may decide to order tests to confirm your diagnosis. These could include:

  • complete blood count (CBC)
  • liver function test
  • abdominal CT scan
  • ultrasound of the liver

If your diagnosis cannot be confirmed through these tests, your doctor may order a liver biopsy. A liver biopsy is an invasive procedure that requires your doctor to remove a tissue sample from the liver. A liver biopsy will show if you have liver disease. This test will also show whether or not you have alcoholic hepatitis.

Treatment Options for Alcoholic Hepatitis

If you are diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis, you will need to stop drinking. By avoiding alcohol, you may be able to reverse the damage that was done to your liver.

Even if the damage is too severe to reverse, you should still quit drinking to prevent further harm to your liver. You might need help to stop drinking, especially if you are struggling with alcohol addiction. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the different treatment options for addiction.

Treatment for alcoholic hepatitis may also include medications that reduce inflammation in your liver and improve liver function.

If you are malnourished, your doctor may also prescribe vitamin and nutrient supplements. If you are having difficulty eating, these nutrients may be provided through a feeding tube. A feeding tube is passed from your nose or mouth into your stomach, allowing nutrient-rich liquids to enter your body.

If your liver is severely damaged, your doctor may recommend a liver transplant. To qualify for a transplant, you must demonstrate that you will not continue drinking if you receive a new liver. You will also need to abstain from alcohol for at least six months. In some cases, you may be required to seek counseling as well.

Long-Term Outlook for Alcoholic Hepatitis

Your outlook will be based on the severity of your symptoms and the amount of damage that has occurred to your liver. Your outlook also depends on whether you are able to stop drinking. If your symptoms are mild and you stop drinking, your prognosis is typically good.

If you do not stop drinking and your condition worsens, your overall outcome and chances for recovery will worsen as well. Alcoholic hepatitis can lead to hepatic encephalopathy. This condition occurs when the toxins typically filtered out by your liver remain in the blood. These toxins can cause brain damage and lead to a coma.

Your outlook may be worse if you develop scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) as a result of your drinking.

How Can You Prevent Alcoholic Hepatitis?

The best way to prevent alcoholic hepatitis is to avoid alcohol or, if you drink, to do so only in moderation. Alcoholic hepatitis can also be prevented through proper nutrition and by protecting yourself from hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is a blood-borne disease that can be transmitted by sharing needles and other equipment for drug use, or by having unprotected sex.

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