Why is the liver important?
The largest internal organ in the body, the liver is absolutely vital for survival. It has a lot of vital functions:
- Produces bile, a mixture of chemicals, which aids digestion.
- Helps break down food to turn it into energy.
- Removes harmful substances from the blood, helping fight infection.
- Makes chemicals that are important for blood clotting.
Stores iron, vitamins, and other essential substances.
How does alcohol affect the liver?
Alcohol is a toxin that damages liver cells. The liver can process small amounts of alcohol, but it can become seriously damaged if you drink in excess.
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What are the other types of alcohol-related liver disease?
Alcohol-related liver disease is divided into three main types: fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis.
Alcoholic Fatty Liver
Excess alcohol consumption causes accumulation of extra fat in the liver. This is the earliest stage of alcohol-related liver disease and there are usually no symptoms. The liver gets enlarged due to an accumulation of fat. Patients who are overweight or have diabetes have a higher risk of liver damage.
In Alcoholic Hepatitis, the liver gets swollen and inflamed. Symptoms include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and jaundice. One out of three heavy drinkers develops alcoholic hepatitis. Alcoholic Hepatitis can be mild or severe. If the condition is mild, liver damage can be reversed after stopping alcohol consumption. If a patient is suffering from mild alcoholic hepatitis and continues drinking alcohol, it may soon lead to grave complications, such as liver failure and death. About 50 percent of patients suffering from severe Alcoholic Hepatitis die.
Alcoholic Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver – soft healthy tissue is replaced by hard scar tissue. It is the most serious type of alcohol-related liver disease. About 20 to 30 percent of heavy drinkers develop Cirrhosis. The damage from cirrhosis cannot be reversed and usually leads to liver failure. Patients with Cirrhosis develop the following complications:
- Accumulation of fluid in the belly (Ascites) and legs (Edema)
- Blood vomiting due to rupture of veins in the stomach or food pipe
- Mental confusion and coma
- Significant muscle wasting.
- Liver cancer
How is alcohol-related liver disease diagnosed?
Alcohol-related liver disease is diagnosed based on history, physical examination, blood tests, and an ultrasound scan. A Fibroscan is a special form of ultrasound scan that can assess whether the patient has developed Cirrhosis or not. Sometimes a liver biopsy may be required to check for liver damage.
How is alcohol-related liver disease treated?
The most important treatment for alcohol-related liver disease is to stop drinking alcohol completely. A healthy and nutritious diet is also important. The affected person should undergo regular psychological counseling and attend an alcohol de-addiction program. Certain behavioral changes and medicines can help the patient from relapsing into alcoholism. Attending support groups is also very helpful.
Medications may be needed to manage the complications caused by liver damage. In advanced cases of Alcoholic Cirrhosis leading to liver failure, the only procedure that saves one’s life is a liver transplant. Only those patients who have stopped drinking completely can be considered for a liver transplant.