Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis

Written by Verneda Lights and Winnie Yu | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis?

Drinking too much alcohol can harm the liver. It can result in a serious disease known as ALC (ALC).

The liver in the organ in your body that is responsible for the breakdown of harmful toxins like alcohol. It also stores energy, and produces proteins and enzymes.

ALC occurs after years of drinking too much alcohol. It is a severe and potentially fatal sickness. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, ALC is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States.

The condition begins as alcoholic fatty liver—the buildup of fat in the liver. Continued drinking may result in alcoholic hepatitis., an inflammation of the liver.

Up to 70 percent of people with alcoholic hepatitis will develop ALC. Even people with alcoholic hepatitis who stop drinking can still develop ALC. Some heavy drinkers develop ALC without having alcoholic fatty liver or alcoholic hepatitis.

What Causes Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis?

Drinking too much alcohol causes ALC. The excess alcohol alters the amount of certain substances in the liver. These changes increase the formation of free radicals, which can cause diseases. Because alcoholics already have lower levels of antioxidants (such as vitamin E) their liver is more susceptible to free radical damage. Ongoing cell death causes scarring of the liver that worsens over time. .

Who Is at Risk for Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis?

Both men and women who drink too much are at risk for ALC. Women have an increased risk because they have less alcohol dehydrogenase—an enzyme needed to break down alcohol. As a result, women break down alcohol at a slower rate. Their blood has a higher concentration of alcohol over a longer period of time. This increases their risk for alcohol toxicity for the liver.

You are also at greater risk for ALC if you develop alcoholic hepatitis. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis and 25 percent develop ALC.

The risk for ALC is increased by factors that raise the risk for alcoholism such as:

  • genetic predisposition for alcohol abuse
  • availability of alcohol
  • social acceptance of alcohol use
  • history of liver disease

What are the Symptoms of Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis?

The symptoms of ALC are:

  • loss of appetite
  • muscle wasting
  • yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • itching
  • enlarged abdomen
  • easy bruising or bleeding
  • bleeding from the mouth or vomiting blood
  • black tarry stools
  • edema (swelling of the feet and legs)
  • erythema (redness of the palms)
  • confusion

How Is Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis Diagnosed?

Diagnosing ALC requires the patient’s health history. Your doctor will also do a physical examination. The physical examination may show:

  • jaundice
  • enlarged breast tissue in men
  • enlarged or small liver
  • enlarged spleen
  • small testicles
  • wasted muscles
  • redness of the palms
  • small irregularly shaped veins underneath the skin (often referred to as spider veins)
  • enlarged abdomen due to fluid (ascites)
  • swelling of the feet and legs

Blood tests may show increased levels of certain liver enzymes. Platelet counts may be low. You may also have anemia, and low levels of folate and vitamin B12. A biopsy of the liver may show widespread scarring and changes in the shape of the liver.

How Is Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis Treated?

Lifestyle changes are key to treating ALC. The most important thing to do is to stop all alcohol intake. This should be done under the supervision of a physician to prevent complications of withdrawal .

Smoking speeds up liver damage, so quitting smoking is important.

Maintaining a normal weight is also helpful. Obesity can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver, which is similar to alcoholic hepatitis.

Eating a balanced diet and taking certain vitamins and minerals can correct nutritional deficiencies caused by alcohol abuse.

How can Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis Be Prevented?

The only way to prevent ALC is to avoid drinking alcohol.

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