Heavy drinking over 10 years or more can greatly increase your risk of cirrhosis. But the more you drink, the more quickly cirrhosis may develop. Your genetics may also play a role.

Alcohol affects everyone differently. While drinking a lot of alcohol over a long period of time can make you more likely to develop cirrhosis, many other factors can influence your risk.

For example, people assigned female at birth are more likely to develop cirrhosis than people assigned male at birth. And some people may have a greater risk of cirrhosis from even just one drink per day because of genetics or conditions that affect the liver.

Read on to learn more about how long it takes to get cirrhosis from drinking, what happens to your liver when you drink too much alcohol, and what early signs and symptoms of liver damage you should keep in mind.

People with alcohol-related cirrhosis tend to have a history of drinking 30–50 grams or more of alcohol per day. Reports of up to 100 grams per day are common. On average, one drink has about 13.7 grams of alcohol.

Experts consider heavy drinking to be:

  • people assigned male at birth consuming 5 or more drinks any day or 15 or more drinks per week
  • people assigned female at birth consuming 4 or more drinks on any day or 8 or more drinks per week
  • “binge drinking” (reaching a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.08 or higher) 5 or more days in a month

People with alcohol-related cirrhosis often start to experience symptoms around 52 years old. Experts also consider heavy drinking over 10 years to put you at a high chance for cirrhosis.

But the more drinks you have regularly, the more quickly you may develop cirrhosis.

A 2018 study suggests that people are getting cirrhosis at a younger age. From 2009 to 2016, the rate of people between 25 and 34 years old dying of cirrhosis rose by more than 10%.

A 2019 study of over 400,000 women suggests that other factors may affect how long it takes to get cirrhosis. Drinking alcohol with a meal can lower your risk, but drinking every day without a meal can double your risk of developing cirrhosis.

Your liver is the main organ that metabolizes alcohol. Cells called hepatocytes — which make up about 80% of your liver’s mass — produce enzymes to break down alcohol.

When you drink a lot of alcohol over a long period, hepatocytes have to work hard to metabolize all the alcohol you’re drinking and prevent it from poisoning your body and brain. As a result, fatty acids start to build up in your liver.

Harmful toxins called reactive oxygen species (ROS) damage your liver and other tissues in your body. Damaged liver cells eventually become scarred and no longer work properly.

Cirrhosis occurs when widespread scarring stops your liver from functioning normally. This can cause bilirubin, iron, and copper — substances your liver typically filters — to build up in your bloodstream.

Key terms

Here are some key terms that can help you understand what happens to your liver when you have cirrhosis and what can happen as a result:

  • Cirrhosis: With cirrhosis, most of your liver is scarred and can’t do its basic functions, such as removing toxins from your blood or helping your blood clot.
  • Liver disease: This is any condition that damages your liver and eventually causes it to lose function. There are four stages of liver disease: inflammation, fibrosis, cirrhosis, and end-stage liver disease.
  • Liver failure: This happens when your liver is damaged and has trouble doing its basic functions. Liver failure is often a result of cirrhosis.
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Some of the earliest symptoms of liver damage from alcohol include:

  • skin turning yellow from a buildup of bilirubin (jaundice)
  • throwing up blood
  • swelling in your abdomen (ascites)
  • itchiness
  • losing muscle mass or strength
  • brain fog
  • losing or gaining weight for no obvious reason
  • passing out
  • abrupt changes in your mood
  • having trouble sleeping

Reducing or avoiding alcohol consumption is essential in preventing liver disease from progressing to cirrhosis.

If you want to reduce your risk of cirrhosis but still drink alcohol, you’ll have to take other preventive measures:

Will occasional drinking over a long period cause cirrhosis?

Occasional drinking over a long period can still cause cirrhosis if you have a genetic condition that increases your risk for liver disease.

Your sex may also affect your risk. Research from 2020 suggests that females are at even higher risk of developing cirrhosis due to liver diseases like:

Your genes can also affect how likely you are to develop cirrhosis. Mutations in genes involved in liver enzyme production or the bile ducts were all associated with an increased risk of developing liver disease regardless of alcohol consumption.

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Alcohol is one of the leading causes of cirrhosis. Even drinking 1–2 alcoholic drinks every few days over a long period can increase your risk of developing cirrhosis.

Talk with a medical professional if you’re experiencing cirrhosis symptoms and have been drinking for several years. The earlier you catch liver disease or cirrhosis, the more likely you can treat and manage it.