Health Library

Alcoholic Hepatitis

What is alcoholic hepatitis?

The liver is a large organ that lies up under the ribs on the right side of the abdomen (belly). It helps filter waste from the body. It also makes bile to help digest food, and stores sugar that the body uses for energy.

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that leads to liver cell damage and cell death.

What causes alcoholic hepatitis?

Alcoholic hepatitis is caused by drinking too much alcohol. The liver breaks down alcohol. If, over time, you drink more alcohol than the liver can process, it can become seriously damaged.

What are the symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis?

The following are the most common symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis:

  • Abdominal (belly) tenderness or pain over the liver
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting blood or material that looks like coffee grounds 
  • Poor appetite
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Weight loss
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Fever

Alcoholic hepatitis usually develops over time with continued drinking. But severe alcoholic hepatitis can develop suddenly and quickly lead to liver failure and death.

The symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always see a doctor for a diagnosis.

How is alcoholic hepatitis diagnosed?

In addition to complete medical history and physical exam, other tests may include:

Blood tests

These include:

  • Liver function studies
  • Blood cell counts
  • Bleeding times
  • Electrolyte tests
  • Tests for other chemicals in the body

Ultrasound of the abdomen

This imaging uses sound waves to show internal structures. It does not involve radiation.

CT scan

This imaging test uses X-rays and a computer to make horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the liver. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.

MRI

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging uses a magnetic field, radio frequency pulses, and a computer to make detailed pictures of internal body structures. Dye is injected to make organs visible.

Liver biopsy

For this test, a small tissue sample is taken from the liver with a needle or during surgery. These samples are checked under a microscope to find out the type of liver disease.

How is alcoholic hepatitis treated?

The goal of treatment is to restore some or all normal functioning to the liver.

It is necessary to completely stop drinking alcohol . This may require an alcohol treatment program. Sometimes diet changes are recommended, too. Scarring of the liver is permanent, but the liver is often able to repair some of the damage caused by alcohol so you can live a normal life.

You may be admitted to the hospital or treated on an outpatient basis. There is no medicine to cure alcoholic hepatitis. Treatment involves reducing the symptoms and halting the progression of the disease.

What are the complications of alcoholic hepatitis?

Many people with alcoholic hepatitis are infected with the hepatitis C virus, and many have gallstones. They are also at increased risk for liver cancer.

If you continue to drink alcohol, the liver will continue to be damaged and, over time, cirrhosis will develop.

Key points about alcoholic hepatitis

  • Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that leads to liver cell damage and cell death.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis is caused by drinking too much alcohol. The liver breaks down alcohol and if, over time, you drink more alcohol than the liver can process, it can become seriously damaged.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis usually develops over time with continued drinking. Severe alcoholic hepatitis can develop suddenly and quickly lead to liver failure and death.
  • You must completely stop drinking alcohol and may need an alcohol treatment program. Sometimes diet changes are recommended, too. Treatment involves reducing the symptoms and halting the progression of the disease.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.