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:

Fatty liver

  • may cause no symptoms
  • belly discomfort
  • fatigue and weakness
  • weight loss

Alcoholic hepatitis

  • abdominal pain
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea, vomiting
  • yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • tea-colored urine

Alcoholic cirrhosis

  • 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
Dr. Fung and Dr. Charlton, co-directors of the transplant institute

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Our internationally renowned specialists have extensive expertise in treating common and complex liver diseases.

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