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Alcohol Hepatitis and Liver Cirrhosis: Differences and Similarities

Alcohol hepatitis and liver cirrhosis are often associated with high amounts of acetaldehyde, a toxin from extreme amounts of ethanol alcohol ingested into the system. Alcohol use disorders can cause some physical conditions affecting the body’s major organs, but the liver is commonly affected by these two severe conditions. Excessive alcohol use decreases antioxidant levels, which can cause an increased risk for disease. 

Other severe physical conditions associated with liver damage can occur from excessive alcohol usage:

  • Jaundice occurs due to a build-up of bilirubin, a yellow pigment in the blood causing yellow skin and eyes often accompanies acute hepatitis or bile duct obstructions. 
  • Enlarged breasts in male patients due to liver dysfunction causing an increased estrogen level.
  • Itching skin, also called pruritus, is commonly found with liver disease due to bile salts accumulating in the skin. 
  • Vomiting of blood is related to liver disease and esophageal varices, which are varicose veins in the esophagus.
  • Enlarged liver is a condition where the liver turns tender and enlarged.

What is Alcohol Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by several reasons. Chronic alcohol usage can cause alcoholic hepatitis and fatty liver. Infections such as hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E also cause the condition of hepatitis in the liver. Viral infections such as mononucleosis and cytomegalovirus contribute to the development of hepatitis. Obesity also causes a form of metabolic dysfunction-associated steatotic liver disease. 

Excessive alcohol consumption stresses the liver and leads to liver failure, which can lead to death if left untreated. Heavy alcohol use can also lead to alcohol-related fatty liver disease, where harmful excess fat accumulates in the liver over time. The liver’s primary functions are making and secreting bile and processing and purifying the blood that contains newly absorbed nutrients from the small intestine.  Alcoholic hepatitis interrupts proper liver function and, untreated, can cause liver cancer. 

Signs and Effects of Alcohol Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis is found through blood tests showing elevation in ALT and AST liver enzyme levels. in fact, 35% of people who drink alcohol heavily develop this disorder. Alcohol hepatitis can significantly decrease well-being causing severe symptoms to occur. In extreme cases, a biopsy must be taken to determine how damaged the liver is.

Signs and effects of alcoholic hepatitis can be any of the following symptoms:

  • Nausea, vomiting, and tenderness in the abdomen
  • Reduced appetite and malnutrition
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Liver and renal failure
  • Low fever
  • Jaundice
  • Blood clotting difficulties
  • Hepatomegaly 
  • Weight loss

What Is Liver Cirrhosis?

Long-term scarring and disease of the liver cause liver cirrhosis. Although the liver can regenerate, chronic infections such as alcoholic hepatitis interrupt recovery. Long-term conditions can cause the liver to become incapable of working effectively, and cirrhosis occurs. Alcoholic liver disease and hepatitis C are the primary causes of liver cirrhosis. 

As the liver cirrhosis continues, the liver becomes smaller and solidifies. Fluid will begin to accumulate in the legs and abdomen as a result. Bile salts build up in the skin leading to jaundice and itching intensifies. As toxins enter the blood, confusion begins, and cognitive functions decline. Advanced liver cirrhosis may require a liver transplant for recovery, as there is no cure for this condition. 

Signs and Effects of Liver Cirrhosis

In combination, liver cirrhosis and chronic liver disease are the 9th leading cause of death in the US and appear in twice as many men as women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 33,098 people in the United States died in 2021 from alcohol-related liver disease and cirrhosis. A liver biopsy is the primary determinant in diagnosing liver cirrhosis. Sometimes, a doctor may use ultrasound or magnetic resonance elastography, CT scan, and blood tests to detect the scarring and disease progression in the liver. 

Liver cirrhosis is classified as either compensated or decompensated. Compensated cirrhosis describes the liver as being still relatively functional, while decompensated cirrhosis represents a deterioration of liver function. Decompensated cirrhosis generally calls for liver transplantation. Cirrhosis can also lead to hepatocellular carcinoma, a common form of liver cancer. 

Common symptoms of liver cirrhosis include any of the following symptoms:

  • Increased bruising and bleeding
  • Fatigue
  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Edema in lower extremities
  • Weight loss
  • Itchy skin
  • Spider veins on the skin
  • Red palms
  • Missed periods for women
  • Low sex drive, testicular atrophy, and breast enlargement for men

Health Complications of Both Conditions

Liver cirrhosis, left untreated, can cause high blood pressure in the large vein that transfers blood from the intestines to the liver, the portal vein. Portal hypertension can be life-threatening and result in several severe conditions. Alcoholic hepatitis, left untreated, can result in the development of cirrhosis which is irreversible. Blood can back up into the blood vessels in the stomach and esophagus. 

Differences Between Alcohol Hepatitis and Liver Cirrhosis

The main difference between alcoholic hepatitis and liver cirrhosis is the reversibility of the diseases. Cirrhosis is irreversible, while alcoholic hepatitis can be completely reversible depending upon the primary cause. Ending alcohol consumption is the main treatment for both conditions, but cirrhosis may require a transplant to recover. However, with liver cirrhosis, an individual may be able to prevent further scarring if drinking alcohol ceases. 

Similarities of Alcohol Hepatitis and Liver Cirrhosis

The primary similarity between alcoholic hepatitis and liver cirrhosis is that both conditions are debilitating to the liver and can lead to liver cancer, liver failure, and the need for a liver transplant. Both diseases can be positively affected by ending the use of alcohol. Alcoholic liver disease can continue to progress without treatment for the alcohol use disorder. To receive a liver transplant, there must be a term of sobriety for eligibility. 

We Are Here to Help You Through Alcohol Detoxification in Georgia

Understanding the damage an alcohol use disorder can inflict upon significant organs, primarily the liver, it’s essential to enroll in a professional detox program to stop using alcohol. The Retreat of Atlanta in Georgia understands how difficult the transition to sobriety can be and offers treatment options to meet the needs of those with an alcohol use disorder. The most significant part of recovery is healing the mind and the body from the complex illness of addiction.

Contact us now to find out how to begin the journey to wellness. 


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