Alcohol-induced hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by alcohol use. Too much alcohol overloads the liver with toxins that injure the tissues. People with this condition should ask their healthcare providers for help to quit drinking in order to prevent further liver damage.
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. It’s a sign of infection or injury to the tissues. Several things can cause hepatitis, including viruses and toxins. Heavy alcohol use is also one of them. Acute alcohol-induced hepatitis (formerly known as alcoholic hepatitis) might only be a temporary response to overindulgence. But when alcohol-induced hepatitis becomes a chronic condition, it threatens to do permanent damage to your liver.
Every food and drink you consume passes through your liver for processing. Your liver helps metabolize nutrients and filter out toxins. When alcohol goes to your liver for processing, it acts as a toxin. It offers no nutritional value and instead breaks down into poisonous chemicals.
Chronic, heavy alcohol use, or alcohol use disorder, can overload your liver with fat and toxins to process. When your liver can no longer keep up, these toxins and fat build up and begin to injure the liver. The injury produces an inflammatory response. This is your body’s way of attempting to heal and ward off further injury.
Like a fever, inflammation is supposed to be a temporary intervention. But when the assault is constant, the inflammation becomes constant. In the liver, this means swelling with fluid. If the swelling is severe and persistent, over time it will damage the tissues, causing cell death.
You’re more at risk if you use alcohol heavily over many years. But not everyone who gets alcohol-induced hepatitis fits this profile. Some people are more sensitive to alcohol, and their livers react to even moderate use. Others may be able to drink more without inducing hepatitis.
Genetic differences may partially explain this. You may be more at risk if you have a family history of alcohol use disorder or liver disease. Sex differences also play a part. In general, people who were assigned male at birth (AMAB) can tolerate more alcohol than those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB).
However, everyone is different, and medically we can’t say what a “safe” amount of alcohol is. Some people develop alcohol-associated hepatitis and cirrhosis from seemingly insignificant quantities of alcohol.
If you only have mild or early hepatitis, you might not have any symptoms. As the disease progresses, you may begin to notice:
When severe hepatitis has begun to interfere with your liver’s functioning, you may begin to notice signs of these complications, such as:
There’s no single formula that leads to alcohol-induced hepatitis in everybody. But statistically, you’re more at risk if you drink heavily on a regular basis for an extended period of time. Heavy drinking means different things for men (and people AMAB) and women (and people AFAB). For people assigned male, it’s about four standard drinks a day or more than 14 drinks per week. For people assigned female, it’s about three drinks per day or more than 7 drinks per week.
Heavy drinking can also look like occasional binge drinking — more than five drinks in a night for men and people AMAB or four for women and people AFAB. Binge drinking at least five times a month is considered heavy. If you keep up this pace for as little as six months, your risk of developing alcohol-induced hepatitis rises significantly. Most people have been drinking for five years or more, with periods of abstinence.
No. Alcohol-induced hepatitis isn’t viral, as other types of hepatitis are. You can’t pass the disease on to others in the same way that you might pass on a virus. However, chronic heavy drinking can be “viral” in the social sense. When friends or family binge drink together, they reinforce in each other the behavior that can lead to alcohol-induced hepatitis.
Your healthcare provider will begin by asking about your health history, including alcohol use. If they suspect an alcohol use disorder, they will examine you for signs of related organ damage. This may involve several tests, including:
There’s no medicine to treat alcohol-induced hepatitis directly. The only effective treatment is to quit drinking. However, it’s best to quit under medical supervision. Quitting cold turkey can lead to withdrawal symptoms and dangerous side effects.
Your healthcare provider can offer supportive care while you recover from alcohol withdrawal and refer you to further resources to help treat alcohol use disorder. They can also help treat some of the complications that alcohol use and hepatitis cause.
Supplemental treatments may include:
If it’s not too far advanced, it can be reversed by quitting alcohol. Those who don’t quit will continue to progress toward cirrhosis and liver failure. Existing scar tissue in your liver can’t be reversed, but you can still prevent further damage and preserve the rest of your liver by quitting. You have to quit completely, and forever, but you can recover.
People who quit drinking alcohol after diagnosis show great improvement after six to 12 months. Milder cases often resolve completely. More severe cases can continue to show gradual improvement over the following years. Some livers may bear permanent scarring, but as long as you stay abstinent from alcohol, there won’t be ongoing damage.
If you don’t stop drinking after diagnosis, you have a reduced life expectancy. For people assigned male at birth who don’t stop drinking, the five-year survival rate is about 70%. For people assigned female at birth who don’t stop drinking, it’s 30%. People with severe alcohol-induced hepatitis and advanced liver disease have poorer outcomes. Up to 40% of people with severe alcohol-induced hepatitis die within six months of diagnosis.
These terms refer to the same condition: inflammation of the liver from alcohol use. The term alcoholic is stigmatizing and isn’t very specific. Since everyone’s body is different, some people may develop alcohol-induced hepatitis but not have alcohol use disorder, though they do commonly go together.
Cirrhosis is late-stage liver disease. It’s what happens when chronic inflammation (hepatitis) does cumulative damage to your liver over time. As cells in the inflamed tissues die, they’re gradually replaced with scar tissue. When a significant portion of your liver tissue has become scar tissue, that’s cirrhosis. In Western societies, alcohol-induced hepatitis causes 50% of cirrhosis cases.
Cirrhosis will eventually stop your liver from working properly. As scar tissue replaces healthy tissue in your liver, it blocks the flow of blood and slows your liver’s ability to process nutrients and filter toxins. This leads to many complications, including malnutrition, blood toxicity, liver failure and death. In the West, alcohol-induced liver disease causes 80% of liver toxicity deaths.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Alcohol-induced hepatitis begins quietly, often without symptoms. Many people fail to recognize the damage that chronic heavy drinking may be doing to their livers. But early recognition is your best hope of catching and reversing the effects of alcohol-induced hepatitis. If you have a history of heavy alcohol use and/or symptoms of liver disease, call your healthcare provider. They’ll check out your liver, assess any possible damage and help you change your habits to change your health future.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/17/2022.
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