Alcoholic Hepatitis

What Is Alcoholic Hepatitis?

It’s a serious condition that affects people who are, or used to be, heavy drinkers. It can cause short- or long-term liver damage.

The liver is the largest organ in the body, and it removes poisons such as alcohol from the blood. When it’s damaged by decades of heavy drinking, it can become inflamed, scarred, and fatty. Over time, it stops working right. Up to 35% of long-time heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis.

If you have it, you might wake up and notice that your skin or the whites of your eyes look yellow -- a condition called jaundice. You might also have a fever, stomachache, or liquid buildup in your belly, and you may lose weight. If you’ve been diagnosed with it or think you might have it, here’s what you need to know.

How Is It Diagnosed?

  • Medical history. Your doctor may ask about your medical past to see if there’s reason to believe you may have alcohol-related liver problems.
  • Questionnaire. He’ll ask you questions to determine if your drinking has become a problem.
  • Blood tests. These will check your liver enzymes. Abnormally high levels are a sign of liver damage.
  • Liver biopsy. Your doctor may request one in addition to blood tests.

Who’s at Risk?

Heavy drinkers -- people who drink at least seven standard drinks each day for 8 to 10 years. A standard drink is about one 12-ounce beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or one 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor. Most people who are diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis are between 40 and 60 years old.

What’s the Treatment?

It depends on how bad the condition is, but your doctor may suggest that you:

  • Stop drinking alcohol. This is the most critical part of the treatment. It may reverse the disease if your alcoholic hepatitis is mild. Your doctor may recommend medications, therapy, and support groups to help prevent or treat any withdrawal symptoms.
  • Change your diet. Thismay include eating low-sodium foods as well as taking diuretics and vitamin supplements.
  • Antibiotics . If you have alcoholic hepatitis, you’re more at risk for bacterial infections. Your doctor will watch for infections and treat it if one appears.
  • Steroids. Your doctor may recommend corticosteroid drugs to reduce liver swelling.

If those treatments don’t work because your disease is too advanced, you may need a liver transplant.

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Complications

If you have alcoholic hepatitis, you could get other serious conditions, including:

Call 911 right away if you:

  • Start vomiting blood
  • Have black, tarry stools
  • Have a fever and can’t stop shaking

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on November 30, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Lucey, M. The New England Journal of Medicine, 2009.  

American Liver Foundation: “Alcohol-Related Liver Disease.”

National Institutes of Health: “Hepatitis.”

AASLD Practice Guidelines: “Alcoholic Liver Disease.”

CDC: “Alcohol and Public Health: Frequently Asked Questions.”

Babineaux, M. World Journal of Hepatology, published online May 2011.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Viral Hepatitis.”

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