Chronic liver damage from heavy drinking can cause a condition called cirrhosis of the liver. With cirrhosis, scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue; the scar tissue impairs the liver's function of removing toxins from the body. Cirrhosis can lead to many health complications including bleeding disorders, liver cancer, kidney failure, reduced mental functioning and death. The best way to prevent cirrhosis is not to drink heavily.
Alcoholic Drink Amounts and Cirrhosis
The number of alcoholic drinks it takes to cause liver damage resulting in cirrhosis varies greatly from person to person, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). Over several years, consuming as few as two to three drinks each day may cause liver damage and cirrhosis in women, reports the NDDIC; for men, having three to four drinks per day can lead to cirrhosis. Examples of one drink include 1.5 oz. of 80-proof liquor, 12 oz. of beer or 5 oz. of wine. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women who choose to drink should have a maximum of one alcoholic drink per day to avoid adverse health consequences such as cirrhosis. Men shouldn't exceed two drinks per day.
Your gender and the number of alcoholic drinks you have each day are not the only factors determining whether you will develop cirrhosis. The length of time for which you've been drinking greatly influences whether you'll develop cirrhosis. The longer you've been abusing alcohol, the more likely you are to cause damage to your liver. Some other important factors that affect whether your alcohol use will lead to cirrhosis include medication use and health status. For example, drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol with a pre-existing liver disease such as hepatitis C may lead to cirrhosis, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Taking medications processed by the liver such as acetaminophen, smoking and being obese may also increase your risk of developing cirrhosis.
Alcoholic Liver Disease
Cirrhosis is the final stage of alcoholic liver disease -- or damage to the liver from chronic alcohol abuse. Once you develop cirrhosis, your liver will not be able to repair itself even if you stop drinking. Fortunately, if you stop drinking in earlier stages of alcoholic liver disease, it is possible for your liver to heal. The earliest stage of ALD is a reversible condition called fatty liver, or steatosis. If you continue to drink with steatosis, you may progress to the next stage of ALD: alcoholic hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver. According to the NIAAA, while it is possible to recover completely from alcoholic hepatitis if you stop drinking, approximately 70 percent of people with alcoholic hepatitis go on to develop cirrhosis, the final, life-threatening stage of ALD.
Although chronic alcohol abuse is the major cause of cirrhosis, it is possible to develop cirrhosis even if you don't drink alcohol. According to the NDDIC, obesity -- both with and without alcohol use -- is a growing cause of cirrhosis in the United States. Hepatitis C, an infection commonly caused by sharing needles used to inject drugs intravenously, can also lead to cirrhosis in the absence of alcohol use, as can certain inherited diseases, such as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, hemochromatosis and cystic fibrosis. It's also important to remember that even if your alcohol use does not result in cirrhosis, heavy drinking can lead to many other serious health consequences, including cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, pancreatitis, an accident resulting in death or serious injury, suicide and others.
- PubMed Health; Cirrhosis; December 2010
- PubMed Health; Alcoholic Liver Disease; December 2010
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse; Cirrhosis; December 2008
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; Alcohol Alert #64: Alcoholic Liver Disease; January 2005
- MayoClinic.com; Alcohol Use: If You Drink, Keep it Moderate; March 2011
- University of Iowa Health Care; Liver Disease: Frequently Asked Questions; Douglas R. LaBrecque, M.D.; May 2001