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Alcoholic Hepatitis: Causes, Symptoms, Complications, Treatment, and Prevention

Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammatory condition of the liver that mostly affects heavy drinkers. The liver is an important organ that removes toxins from the body. When the individual consumes alcohol for a long duration, the liver becomes inflamed, scarred, fatty and stops working. About 35% of chronic drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

What is Alcoholic Hepatitis?

Alcoholic hepatitis is a clinical syndrome caused due to consumption of large quantity of alcohol for a long period. . The condition gets worse by binge drinking and continuing the consumption of alcohol, which may lead to several complications.

What causes Alcoholic Hepatitis?

Alcoholic hepatitis is mainly caused due to too much consumption of alcohol. The alcohol inside the liver is processed producing highly toxic chemicals that injure the liver cells. Over time this injury interferes with the liver function and leads to inflammation and irreversible scarring, which causes alcoholic hepatitis.

Other factors that cause Alcoholic hepatitis include:

Hepatitis C: Ann individual with hepatitis C who consumes alcohol even in moderate amount is more likely to develop alcoholic hepatitis.

Malnutrition: Lack of nutrients is also one of the common causes of alcoholic hepatitis. People who drink heavily are malnourished, as they eat poorly or the alcohol and its byproducts do not allow the nutrients to get absorbed in the body.

Symptoms of Alcoholic hepatitis:

The symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis may differ based on the degree of liver damage. In several cases, individuals do not experience any symptoms until the liver is badly damaged. With severe liver damage the individual might experience:

  • Dry mouth
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Yellow colored skin and whites of the eyes
  • Bruising
  • Change in mental state
  • Easy bleeding
  • Fatigue
  • Low-grade fever
  • Swelling of the abdomen

Risk factors for Alcoholic Hepatitis:

Factors that increase the risk of developing Alcoholic hepatitis:

Age: The typical age for developing alcoholic hepatitis is between 40 to 50 years.

Gender: Females are at higher risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis than male because of differences in the way alcohol is processed.  Research suggests that alcohol stays for a longer duration in women’s body than in men.   

Race and ethnicity: Based on the changes in drinking patterns the risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis is more in African Americans and Hispanics than compared to Caucasians.

Obesity: Obesity is a major risk factor for developing alcoholic hepatitis, as it increases the severity of the condition in all its stages.

Drinking patterns and types: Binge drinking is one of the common risk factors for developing alcoholic hepatitis, and also consumption of alcohol at meal time increases the risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis.

Genetic factors: Genetic factors affect the way alcohol is processed in the body.

Complications of Alcoholic Hepatitis:

If the individual continues to consume alcohol, the condition gets worse and increases the risk of developing several serious health complications, such as:

  • Hepatic encephalopathy
  • High blood pressure in the liver
  • Enlarged veins
  • Accumulation of fluid in the abdomen
  • Jaundice
  • Liver failure
  • Kidney failure

Diagnosis of Alcoholic Hepatitis:

The doctor initiates the diagnosis by reviewing the signs and symptoms, medical history and drinking habits of the individual. Physical examination and certain tests are recommended that includes:

  • Liver function test is performed to determine the liver health and to screen for any liver infections, by evaluating the levels of proteins, liver enzymes, or bilirubin in the blood.
  • Complete blood count is performed to determine the blood levels and to check the liver enzymes. If the blood levels are abnormally high, that indicates a sign of liver damage.
  • Abdominal CT (computed tomography) scan is performed to view the organs, blood vessels, and bones in the abdominal cavity. This test also reveals if there is an inflammation in the spleen or in the liver.
  • Ultrasound of the liver or liver sonography uses high-frequency sound waves to view and capture the images of the internal organs.
  • Liver biopsy is an invasive procedure performed to confirm the diagnosis and to reveal the severity and type of the liver disease.

Treatment for Alcoholic hepatitis:

The primary objective of the treatment is to ease the signs and symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis and to prevent the liver damage. Treatment for alcoholic hepatitis is initiated based on the severity of the condition. However, the doctor recommends the individuals to:

Avoid alcohol consumption:

Alcoholic hepatitis is caused and is aggravated due to the consumption of alcohol, so the first step in the treatment involves drinking cessation. In the early stage, individuals can avoid the liver damage by quitting alcohol.

If the individuals have alcohol addiction, then the doctor may recommend treatment program, which specializes in alcohol detoxification and recovery.

Change in diet:

Malnutrition is one of the well-known causes of alcoholic hepatitis, so a special diet containing low-sodium and high vitamin supplements are recommended. If the individual have trouble in eating, then tube feeding is advised to pass nutrient-rich liquids directly into the digestive system.

Drug therapy:

If the individual have severe alcoholic hepatitis, then the doctor may recommend certain drugs, such as:

  • Antibiotics: Individuals with alcoholic hepatitis are at greater risk of developing bacterial infections, so the doctor recommends antibiotics to prevent infection.
  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids are rarely prescribed to reduce swelling of the liver.

Liver transplantation:

If the above treatment fails, then liver transplantation is recommended. People with severe alcoholic hepatitis are at increased risk of death without a liver transplant.

Liver transplant is a surgical procedure, which replaces the diseased liver with a healthy liver from a living or deceased person. Liver transplant is the last treatment option for alcoholic hepatitis.

Prevention and cure for Alcoholic Hepatitis:

Measures that help in preventing the risk of alcoholic hepatitis include:

  • Avoid consumption of alcohol
  • Maintain a nutritious diet
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Avoid the risk of hepatitis B and hepatitis C by taking necessary precautions
  • Undergo regular health check-up
  • Consult the doctor before taking any OTC (over-the-counter) drugs while consuming alcohol

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