Key Points about Alcoholic Hepatitis
- Alcoholic hepatitis is a liver infection that is caused by heavy drinking over time.
- Your specialist can diagnose alcoholic hepatitis using blood tests and imaging tests.
- If diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis, you should quit drinking all alcohol right away.
- If your liver is severely damaged, you may need to undergo a liver transplant.
Alcoholic hepatitis is a liver condition caused by excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time. Continuing to drink alcohol – especially binge drinking – aggravates the condition and increases the risk of developing complications, including cirrhosis of the liver, excessive bleeding or liver failure.
Alcoholic hepatitis causes
When a person consumes alcohol, the liver processes it and creates highly toxic chemicals during this process. Over time, the chemicals damage liver cells and can cause irreversible damage.
Alcoholic hepatitis risk factors
Factors that put you at an increased risk for developing alcoholic hepatitis include:
- Being female
- Being malnourished
- Being overweight or obese
- Drinking alcohol without consuming food at the same time
- Genetic factors that affect how your body processes alcohol
- Having other liver conditions, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or hemochromatosis
Alcoholic hepatitis symptoms
Some people with alcoholic hepatitis don’t experience any symptoms, especially in its early stages. When they do occur, signs and can include:
- Bleeding easily
- Bruising easily
- Decreased appetite
- Dry mouth
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- Pain or swelling in the abdomen
- Unintentional weight loss
Alcoholic hepatitis diagnosis
Your specialist will use one or more of the following tests to diagnose alcoholic hepatitis:
- Physical examination - your doctor will ask about your health history, drinking habits and symptoms specific to alcoholic hepatitis. Your doctor will feel your abdomen to check for an enlarged liver or spleen.
- Abdominal computed tomography (CT) scan - this type of imaging test is a specialized X-ray that creates detailed images of your liver and surrounding body structures. Your specialist uses these images to determine the extent of liver damage.
- Liver biopsy - during this test, your provider inserts a thin needle into your abdomen near your liver and then removes a small tissue sample (biopsy) for close analysis in the lab. Lab technicians can determine if your liver has been damaged.
- Blood tests - your specialist may use blood tests – such as a complete blood count (CBC) or blood clotting tests – to confirm the diagnosis of alcoholic hepatitis.
- Liver function test - your specialist may order this type of blood test to check how well your liver is functioning. A liver function test measures the levels of proteins, bilirubin (byproduct of red blood cell breakdown) and liver enzymes in your blood.
- Ultrasound - this imaging test uses sound waves to create detailed images of the inside of your body. Your specialist can use this image to determine the extent of liver damage.
Alcoholic hepatitis treatment
If you are diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis, you need to quit drinking alcohol immediately to avoid further damage and possibly reverse some of the damage that’s already occurred. If you are malnourished, you may need to receive vitamin and nutrient supplements, possibly through an intravenous (IV) line in the hospital.
If your liver has been severely damaged by alcoholic hepatitis infection, you may need to undergo a liver transplant. During this procedure, your specialist removes your damaged liver and puts a donor liver in its place. The donor liver usually comes from a deceased organ donor, but, in some cases, a family member may be able to donate a partial liver.
When should I seek care?
If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing a liver specialist for more specialized treatment.