What Does Alcohol Do To Your Liver?

Alcohol is the most widely abused substance in the United States. 85.6 percent of people ages 18 and older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime and 69.5 percent reported that they drank in the past year. More than half of Americans drink alcohol every month.[1]

Despite the fact that alcohol is so popular, it can be dangerous, especially for chronic, heavy drinkers. One of the most common long-term health effects of alcohol is liver disease. The liver is the organ most affected when the body metabolizes alcohol, making it vulnerable to alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD).

Alcohol Related Liver Disease

How Does Alcohol Affect the Liver?

The liver’s job is to break down and filter out harmful and toxic substances in your blood. It is also responsible for creating the hormones, proteins, and enzymes that your body needs to keep your immune system in optimal condition. The final responsibility of the liver is to convert things like medication, nutrients, and vitamins into substances the body can use to function.

The liver can only process one standard drink per hour. If it has to process more than that, alcohol builds up in the bloodstream and produces feelings of intoxication. In the hours after a person stops drinking, the liver must work overtime to compensate for alcohol in the bloodstream. This places a lot of stress on the liver short term and can cause harm in the long term.

Between 90-98% of the alcohol a person consumes is processed by the liver.[2] Chronic heavy drinking ultimately slows down the natural function of the liver and impairs how well it can deal with the impurities in the bloodstream. Over time, alcohol destroys liver cells, resulting in alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) and other liver problems, including:

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Alcoholic fatty liver disease, also known as steatosis, is the first stage of ARLD. This happens when there is a build-up of excess fats in the liver. This stage of disease rarely shows any symptoms. Nearly 20% of all alcoholics and heavy drinkers develop fatty liver.[3]

Alcoholic Hepatitis

The second stage of ARLD is alcoholic hepatitis. Alcoholic hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by alcohol and it occurs in people who drink heavily for many years. Symptoms include yellow skin and eyes.


Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver. This damage is permanent and cannot be cured. When cirrhosis occurs, healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue, and the liver can no longer work correctly. Symptoms include fatigue, easy bruising, swelling in legs, feet, or ankles, and yellow skin discoloration. There are four stages of cirrhosis, but cirrhosis is the final stage of ARLD.

Liver Cancer

Heavy alcohol abuse has been linked to an increased risk of liver cancer. Alcohol can increase the risk of other cancers, too. About 6% of all cancers and 4% of all cancer deaths are attributed to alcohol abuse.[4]

Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease (ARLD)

In the early stages of ARLD, damage can be reversed with abstinence. The problem is that the early stages of ARLD are often asymptomatic, or the symptoms are minor and mistaken for something else.

Common symptoms of liver disease include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Swelling of the legs and ankles
  • Itching
  • Bruising easily
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fever
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pale, bloody, or discolored stool
  • Disorientation

The best way to avoid ARLD is to limit alcohol consumption. This means having one drink or less per day if you are a woman and two drinks or less per day if you are a man.

Treatment Outcomes for Alcoholics With Liver Damage

In the early stages of alcohol-related liver disease, abstinence can help reverse the damage sustained by the liver. However, cirrhosis and liver cancer may be more serious, requiring professional medical testing and treatment.

  • Alcoholic fatty liver – Is treated with abstinence but will progress if a person keeps drinking.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis – Can be treated with abstinence, nutritional care, and hydration. Steroids may help reduce liver inflammation but should be used with care.
  • Cirrhosis – Treatment along with abstinence can help people with cirrhosis limit further damage and live fairly normal lives. In severe cases, a liver transplant may be required. Left untreated, this condition is fatal.
  • Liver cancer – Treatments may vary depending on the stage of liver cancer but may involve removal of part of the liver, liver transplant, chemotherapy, and/or radiation. Outcomes vary widely.

If you or someone you love has an alcohol problem and is showing symptoms of liver disease, it is vital to seek a medical opinion as soon as possible. The earlier you get a diagnosis and treatment, the better the outcomes will be.

Find an Alcohol Rehab Center Near You

An alcoholism treatment program can help you or a loved one stop drinking and get your health back on track. Call now to speak with a team member at Addiction Interventions to locate an alcohol detox and rehab center near you. All calls are risk-free and confidential.


  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  2. https://www.mydr.com.au/gastrointestinal-health/liver-and-alcohol-breakdown/
  3. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-3/209-219.htm
  4. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/alcohol-use-and-cancer.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *