You’ve likely heard the term “hepatitis” before, but might not know exactly what it means. In simple terms, hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver. This inflammation can be caused by various factors, including alcohol use. Let’s break down what “alcoholic hepatitis” means, what symptoms to look out for, and what treatment looks like.
If you’re experiencing health concerns, please contact your healthcare provider for personalized medical advice.
What is Alcoholic Hepatitis?
Alcoholic hepatitis is a medical condition characterized by when alcohol use causes inflammation in the liver. The relationship between alcohol consumption and hepatitis isn’t always clear-cut, and the root causes are often complex. While alcoholic hepatitis usually presents itself in people who have been drinking excessively over long periods of time, those who regularly drink moderate amounts of alcohol can also develop the condition.
There isn’t sufficient research about how exactly alcohol damages the liver, but medical experts agree there are two primary factors that are known to influence the development of the condition:
Infection With Other Forms of Hepatitis
If a person has hepatitis C and also suffers from alcohol use disorder (AUD), that person will be more likely to develop alcoholic hepatitis and possibly alcoholic cirrhosis. Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Hepatitis C is spread through contact with blood from someone with the condition, and is most frequently contracted by sharing needles, tattoo equipment, and other similar instruments.
Chemicals From Processing Alcohol
The body’s natural process for breaking down alcohol results in the creation of highly toxic chemicals, and these chemicals can trigger inflammation. This inflammation, in turn, can destroy liver cells. Over a prolonged period, scarring replaces healthy tissue in the liver, which can inhibit normal liver function, and result in alcoholic hepatitis.
Symptoms of Alcohol-Induced Hepatitis
As is often the case with diseases affecting the liver, the symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis often develop slowly and mirror other health conditions. If your hepatitis is still in the early stages, it’s possible you won’t have any noticeable symptoms. Severe alcoholic hepatitis can also develop suddenly, which can lead to liver failure, and even death in some cases. As always, be sure to visit a doctor immediately if you experience one or more of these symptoms, and remember that only a doctor or trained medical professional can provide you with an accurate diagnosis. Here are 8 symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis to look out for:
The first observable signs of alcoholic hepatitis are often:
1. Tenderness or swelling in the abdomen: Your liver lies in your upper right abdomen – above your stomach and below your ribcage. Swelling in this region may be an early sign of hepatitis.
2. Appetite loss: While appetite loss can be an early indicator of hepatitis, drinking alcohol can also impact appetite, so it can be hard to understand what may be a symptom of hepatitis. It’s best to consult with a medical professional if you feel a sudden loss of appetite with no clear cause.
3. Nausea and vomiting: Similar to appetite loss, it can be difficult to discern whether this is related to hepatitis or another underlying cause. If you begin to experience regular nausea or vomiting, it’s best to seek medical guidance.
When severe hepatitis takes hold and it begins to severely impact liver function, it leads to more pronounced symptoms, such as:
4. Fever: For adults, this means a temperature higher than 100.4°F.
5. Elevated heart rate: The average heart rate is between 60-100 beats per minute. Anytime your heart beats faster than 100 beats per minute, it’s considered abnormal.
6. Jaundice: Jaundice is a condition where both the whites of the eyes and the skin begin to turn yellow. An abnormal level of bile is secreted by the liver and causes this yellow color, which is a clear sign that the liver isn’t functioning correctly.
7. Frequent bleeding or bruising: Known as thrombocytopenia, this occurs when you have too few platelets (the cells that form clots and stop bleeding) in your blood. Thrombocytopenia can often be a sign of liver disease.
8. Confusion: Confusion is a symptom of liver failure that may present on its own or be accompanied by fatigue.
Alcoholic Hepatitis Risk Factors
The major risk factor for alcoholic hepatitis is the amount of alcohol you consume. However, as mentioned earlier, there is no set amount of drinking that brings about the onset of the condition.
That said, according to Mayo Clinic, most people who develop alcoholic hepatitis have a drinking history of more than 3.5 ounces of alcohol (seven glasses of wine or beer or seven shots of hard alcohol) a day for a period of 20 years or more.
At the same time, there are other factors that can increase the risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis, such as:
- Your sex: women process alcohol differently than men and are more at risk of developing alcoholic gastritis.
- Obesity: being overweight negatively affects the body’s ability to process alcohol effectively.
- Malnutrition: malnutrition can create a lack of vital nutrients in one’s diet, increasing the risk of alcoholic hepatitis.
- Genetic factors: studies suggest a genetic component may be at play in the development of alcoholic hepatitis.
- Heavy drinking within a short period of time: consuming five or more drinks within two hours for men, and four or more within two hours for women can increase your risk of alcoholic hepatitis.
Free Support Group: Embracing long-term sobriety together
How is Alcoholic Hepatitis Treated?
In cases of alcoholic hepatitis, a doctor may:
- Prescribe alcoholic hepatitis-related medication such as pentoxifylline or corticosteroids. However, it’s important to note that some studies have shown these treatments to have limited effectiveness.
- Treat the patient for malnutrition. This may mean prescribing a special diet to correct nutritional problems or employing tube feeding in severe cases where the patient has trouble eating.
- Advise the patient to cut back or stop drinking alcohol. There are several evidence-based treatments to help someone change their drinking habits, including medication to stop drinking and alcohol therapy.
- Seek a liver transplant, though this is generally reserved for those suffering from viral forms of the disease.
Can You Reverse Alcohol-Induced Hepatitis?
The best thing a person who has alcoholic hepatitis can do is try their best to moderate their alcohol consumption. While total abstinence will lead to the best health outcomes, beginning to cut back can still help tremendously to reverse liver damage or prevent the disease from progressing.
At Monument, our online treatment program provides you with the necessary tools to make progress on your own terms. There are options for virtual therapy as well as medications that can help you stop drinking. Your Care Team will work with you to create a treatment plan tailored just for you. Additionally, joining the online community at Monument is completely free and provides you with expert resources and therapist-moderated alcohol support groups. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone in this journey, and healing is possible.
- Healthline. “Hepatitis A, B, and C: What to Know About Each Type” https://www.healthline.com/health/hepatitis-a-vs-b-vs-c. Accessed August 2, 2022.
- hepDelta.com.”What is Chronic Hep D” https://www.hepdelta.com/what-is-hep-d?utm_id=iw_sa_15427467240_130731976295&utm_medium=cpc&utm_term=hepatitis+d&gclid=CjwKCAjwlqOXBhBqEiwA-hhitBCpl9S4_267edb9kXJQpI7DU61UsMOBQfZ648WygOc5YU4RkrR14xoCLdQQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds#chronic-infection. Accessed August 2, 2022.
- Medical News Today. “What is the difference between hepatitis B and C?” https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323455#treatment. Accessed August 2, 2022.
- Mayoclinic.org. “Alcoholic hepatitis – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcoholic-hepatitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351388. Accessed August 2, 2022.
- John Hopkins Medicine. Alcoholic Hepatitis | Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/hepatitis/alcoholic-hepatitis. Accessed August 2, 2022.
- Cleveland Clinic. Alcohol-Induced (Alcoholic) Hepatitis: Symptoms & Treatment. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17853-alcoholic-hepatitis#symptoms-and-causes. Accessed August 2, 2022.