Physicians at the University of Chicago Medicine Center for Liver Diseases offer the latest innovative treatments for alcoholic liver disease, including liver transplantation for patients who may not have had this option in the past. Our liver transplant experts understand the complex medical and psychological needs of patients with alcoholic liver disease and work together with social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists to ensure you receive the highest level of personalized care and support.
What is Alcoholic Liver Disease?
Alcohol-induced liver disease is a term used to describe a liver that has been damaged by over-use of alcohol. It’s the liver’s job to break down alcohol, but if you consume more than your liver can process, you can seriously damage it. Patients can go through three stages of the disease:
- The first step is the build-up of fat inside the liver cells. A fatty liver leads to an enlarged liver. It’s important not to confuse this with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, where patients have a build-up of fat in the liver without a history of alcohol use. Fat in the liver is usually reversible if you stop drinking.
- Alcoholic hepatitis is a serious condition in which your liver becomes extremely inflamed, which can lead to multiple organs failing. If caught early enough, alcoholic hepatitis can be reversed if you permanently stop drinking alcohol.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis is an advanced stage of liver disease that occurs when your liver tissue becomes scarred. As the scarring replaces healthy tissue, it becomes increasingly difficult for your liver to work properly. Abstinence can stop the progression of scarring and slow down the side effects, but cirrhosis cannot be reversed.
Treating Alcoholic Liver Disease
The most important part of treating alcoholic liver disease is to permanently stop all alcohol consumption. Your health care team can help you find programs to support you on this critical undertaking, including both inpatient and outpatient treatment programs at UChicago Medicine. Additionally, treatment for alcoholic liver disease may involve:
- Taking medications to prevent your craving for alcohol
- Eating healthy, well-balanced meals
- Receiving a liver transplant
Frequently Asked Questions about Alcoholic Liver Disease
Depending on the condition you have, the signs and symptoms for alcoholic liver disease vary. You may not have any until your liver is badly damaged. The most common ones are:
- may cause no symptoms
- belly discomfort
- fatigue and weakness
- weight loss
- abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
- nausea, vomiting
- yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
- tea-colored urine
- all symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis
- enlarged spleen
- loss of muscle mass
- black stools
- vomiting blood
- kidney failure
- swollen belly
- changes in thought or mood, such as confusion or irritability
- liver cancer
Alcoholic liver disease is caused by drinking too much alcohol. The amount of alcohol needed to cause liver damage varies for each person. Also, even when consuming the same amount of alcohol, women who frequently misuse it are more likely to damage their liver than men.
Your doctor will do a complete health history and physical exam. In order to accurately diagnose your specific illness, it’s important that you share openly with your doctor about your alcohol use. Other tests used to diagnose alcohol-induced liver disease include:
- Blood tests, including liver function tests, to see whether your liver is working the way it should.
- A liver biopsy involves removing small tissue samples from the liver with a needle, then checking these samples under a microscope to diagnose the type of liver disease.
- Imaging. Ultrasound uses high frequency sound waves to create a picture of your liver. CT scans use X-rays to produce detailed images, while MRI uses a magnetic field and radio frequency pulses to produce comprehensive pictures of your liver.
The most important treatment you can undertake is to permanently stop drinking alcohol to give your liver the chance to rest and heal as much as possible. Depending on the severity of damage to your liver and your specific illness, your treatment may involve:
- Taking medications, such as steroids
- Eating well-balanced meals and taking vitamin supplements to replenish the nutrients in your body that have been depleted by heavy alcohol use
- Receiving a liver transplantation
World-Renowned Liver Disease Specialists
With access to leading therapies and state-of-the-art technologies, our liver disease specialists work together to provide personalized care for each patient.Find a Liver Disease Specialist
Why Choose UChicago Medicine for Liver Disease Care
Our internationally renowned specialists have extensive expertise in treating common and complex liver diseases.
Coordinated, Collaborative Care
Some people with liver disease have related medical problems in other areas, such as diabetes, kidney disease or heart disease. At UChicago Medicine, all of our highly specialized physicians work under the same roof and are in continual communication with one another. Whether you need care from an endocrinologist, nephrologist, cardiologist, transplant surgeon or any other specialist, you can be assured that these specialists will collaborate on your behalf.
Personalized Approach to Care
Individually tailored treatment, personalized support and ongoing education help patients through the lengthy and often challenging journey of living with liver disease. Nurse specialists, physician assistants, social workers, registered dietitians and other members of our team have important roles supporting each patient and their family throughout treatment.
A Tradition of Excellence
Today’s UChicago Medicine physicians, researchers and members of our hepatology team build on more than eight decades of experience, discoveries and treatment innovations related to liver disease. Our team oversees many clinical trials of new therapies for liver disease.
Research & Clinical Trials
Research leads to better ways to treat, diagnose and even prevent liver disease. Members of our team are actively involved in research on two fronts: in the lab (basic research) and with patients (clinical research).
In the lab, scientists are focusing on hepatitis and other liver diseases at the cellular level. Deeper understanding about how liver disease develops and progresses can lead to more effective treatments.
Clinical research often has a more timely impact on treating liver disease. As one of the nation’s leading academic hospitals, UChicago Medicine offers many clinical trials for promising new therapies. Often, these clinical trials are open to individuals whose disease has relapsed or resisted standard treatments.
Liver Transplant Institute
The University of Chicago Medicine is one of the most experienced centers for liver transplantation. Our liver transplant program was established in 1984 — the first in the Midwest and only the fourth liver transplant program in the U.S. at that time. Over the decades, transplant surgeons here have made innovations that have revolutionized liver transplantation, particularly in the area of living-donor transplant.
Ranked Among the Nation's Best
The University of Chicago Medicine has one of the premier gastroenterology and hepatology programs in the United States. Year after year, our GI program is ranked among the nation’s best for treating digestive system disorders.