Alcoholic Hepatitis: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment
Alcoholic hepatitis is a condition characterized by liver inflammation that occurs after several years of chronic alcohol abuse. Even people who drink heavily for less than a year are susceptible to developing this condition. While it is reversible if caught early and treated effectively, it is life-threatening if people continue to drink and ignore their condition.
There are many different types of hepatitis. Hepatitis refers to a range of conditions associated with inflammation of the liver, such as hepatitis A, B, or C. However, heavy drinking and alcoholism can lead to the development of alcoholic hepatitis. In fact, diseases of the liver are some of the most common conditions that result from problematic drinking. Fortunately, the recovery rate for alcoholic hepatitis is far better than that of more serious liver conditions, such as cirrhosis.
What is Alcoholic Hepatitis?
Alcoholic hepatitis is one of several alcoholic liver diseases that is associated with alcohol use disorder (AUD). The liver is responsible for metabolizing and processing toxins in the body. It also helps fight off infections, regulate blood sugar, and regulate cholesterol levels. The liver is also the primary organ that metabolizes alcohol when people drink.
Long-term drinking can cause liver inflammation. Inflammation of the liver can then lead to cell damage which prevents the liver from being able to function properly. People who are in the late stage of alcoholic liver disease may develop cirrhosis of the liver – a condition characterized by irreversible liver scarring, liver failure, and, often death.
There are two types of alcoholic hepatitis: acute and chronic. In most cases, hepatitis caused by substance abuse is a short-lived, or acute, condition that is treated with lifestyle changes and sobriety. People who continue drinking or return to drinking after being diagnosed or recovering from acute hepatitis may go on to develop chronic hepatitis. Chronic alcoholic hepatitis is a condition that may lead to permanent scarring of the liver (cirrhosis).
Heavy alcohol abuse makes individuals at risk for developing this condition. The more a person drinks for a longer amount of time, the more susceptible they are to alcohol-related liver diseases. Not all alcoholics develop liver disease, but it is more common in people between the ages of 40-50 and in men. However, women can develop the condition faster than men can as women tend to be more susceptible to the immediate and long-term effects of alcohol abuse.
Heavy alcohol use can be defined as having 5 or more days of binge drinking within a month. Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking where a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) surpasses 0.08g/dL. This usually equals 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men within a 2-hour time period. Binge drinking or engaging in heavy alcohol use will substantially increase a person’s risk for developing alcoholic hepatitis.
While the onset of alcoholic liver diseases could vary between as little as 90 days and as long as 36 years, the typical patient with alcoholic hepatitis has a history of more than 5 years of daily alcohol consumption of over 80g of ethanol per day.
Symptoms of Alcoholic Hepatitis
People in the early stages of alcoholic liver disease may experience no symptoms at all. However, their symptoms will slowly increase. Early symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis are:
- Stomach pain and cramping
- Lack of energy
- Reduced appetite
- Web-like blood vessels on the skin (spider angioma)
- Unexplained weight loss
- Dark-colored urine
Left undiagnosed and untreated, these acute symptoms may worsen, especially if a person continues drinking. As symptoms progress, the function of the liver decreases. Late symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include:
- Yellowing of the eyes and/or skin (jaundice)
- Bruising easily
- Confusion or difficulty thinking straight (hepatic encephalopathy)
- Pale or clay-colored stools
- Hand tremors (asterixis)
- Unusual redness of the palms of the hands
- A buildup of fluids in the legs and/or abdomen (edema)
- Enlarged liver (hepatomegaly)
People with this condition may be more prone to infections of the urinary tract, lungs, and more.
Treatment for Alcoholic Liver Disease
The first step towards treating and managing alcoholic hepatitis is to get the patient to stop drinking. This can be difficult, which is why alcohol rehab programs that have qualified medical staff are so useful in people with alcoholic liver disease. Patients may also be encouraged to eat a healthy diet that is low in salt. Doctors may direct patients to take certain medications, such as diuretics to treat fluid buildup or vitamins to support healthy blood clotting.
Patients who are in the latter stages of the disease or those or are suffering from complications like kidney failure or encephalopathy may need to do a major procedure or receive life-long treatment. These procedures may include removing fluid from the abdomen or placing a device in the liver to restore healthy blood flow. Some medications that may be used include corticosteroids for inflammation and pentoxifylline to help improve kidney function. In severe cases, a complete liver transplant may be necessary.
The success of treatment ultimately depends on the individual patient’s willingness to stop drinking, live a healthy lifestyle, and whether or not they have any complications with the disease. Getting help from an alcohol rehab program can help patients avoid drinking and live a healthy lifestyle, thereby improving their symptoms and overall condition.
Treating Alcoholism in Patients with Alcoholic Hepatitis
Since alcohol addiction and alcohol use disorder (AUD) are the primary contributing factors to alcoholic hepatitis, most patients are encouraged to get help from a local alcohol rehab program. First, alcohol treatment centers can help patients get through their withdrawals comfortably and safely. Once patients have detoxed, group counseling and behavioral therapy teach patients how to stay sober, make healthy decisions, and avoid relapsing behaviors.
Find an Alcohol Rehab Near You Today
Whether you are struggling with alcoholic hepatitis or you simply can’t stop drinking and fear the negative side effects to come, we’re here to help. Pick up the phone and call us now to speak with a dedicated addiction treatment professional.
Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.