What is alcoholic hepatitis?

Alcoholic hepatitis is a disease that affects the liver. It may develop in people who drink large amounts of alcohol for several years.

The definition of heavy drinking varies by gender. In men, heavy drinking is defined by more than 14 drinks per week; in women, heavy drinking is more than 7 drinks per week. A single drink is equal to 14-15 grams of alcohol, or 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

Drinking too much alcohol may lead to an inflamed (swollen), scarred liver. Healthy cells within the liver are destroyed by years of alcohol abuse. The liver cannot function properly and the person’s health declines.

Like all foods and liquids a person consumes, alcohol passes through the liver. The liver takes the vitamins and minerals from those items, converts them into fuel for the body, and stores them for when they are needed.

Alcohol does not have any nutrients and actually turns into a toxic (poisonous) material once the liver converts it. When the liver is healthy, the toxic substance can be out of the body. If the liver is damaged and cannot rid itself of the toxic substance, it begins to damage the liver.

If heavy drinking continues, alcoholic hepatitis may continue to damage the liver and could lead to cirrhosis, a life-threatening condition in which scar tissue replaces healthy tissue in the liver. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure and death.

In addition, patients with alcoholic hepatitis usually suffer from malnutrition and are more at risk for infections in the body.

How common is alcoholic hepatitis?

Among people who are chronic, heavy drinkers, about 10-35 percent will develop alcoholic hepatitis.

Who is at risk for alcoholic hepatitis?

Both women and men can have alcoholic hepatitis. Most people who are diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis are between 40 and 60 years old. Patients at highest risk for alcoholic hepatitis typically drink more than 100 grams of alcohol a day for many years. Those who have a family history of alcoholism may also be at risk for the disease.

What are the symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis?

If the condition is mild, the patient who suffers from alcoholic hepatitis may not have any noticeable symptoms. Other times, the patient may complain of:

If the condition is severe, the patient may also have:

  • Jaundiced, or yellow, skin
  • Bleeding, either from the esophagus (the tube leading from the throat to the stomach) or the stomach

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/21/2018.

References

  • American Liver Foundation. Alcohol-Related Liver Disease. Accessed 6/22/2018.
  • PubMed Health. How does the liver work? Accessed 6/22/2018.
  • Basra G, Basra S, Parupudi S. Symptoms and signs of acute alcoholic hepatitis. World J Hepatol. 2011 May 27; 3(5):118–120. doi: 10.4254/wjh.v3.i5.118
  • Lucey MR, Mathurin P, Morgan TR. Alcoholic Hepatitis. N Engl J Med 2009; 360:2758-2769 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra0805786

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