How Much Alcohol Does It Take To Damage Your Liver? Side Effects, Interactions & Risks

Last Updated: January 15, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

While most people know that alcohol can affect their liver, it is important to understand how this happens and what it ultimately means.

Using alcohol, especially in heavy amounts, can lead to several adverse health effects, one of the most common being liver damage. Over 43%1 of liver disease cases in the U.S. are caused by alcohol. While most people know that alcohol can affect their liver, it is important to understand how this happens and what it ultimately means.

The liver is located2 under the right side of your rib cage and is about the size and shape of a football. The liver plays an essential role in many physiological functions, including producing chemicals required for blood to clot, promoting digestion and clearing toxins from the bloodstream. All the blood that absorbs nutrients during digestion passes through your liver before it actually enters your body’s bloodstream, filtering out potentially harmful substances that you ingest when eating or drinking.

Alcohol is a mild poison, and the body recognizes it as a toxin. When you drink alcohol, your liver starts to remove it from your bloodstream the moment you drink it. Because alcohol is toxic to the body, filtering it causes stress on the liver. While the stress caused by a single drink will not cause any meaningful effect on the liver, long-term or heavy alcohol use can lead to lasting damage.

How Much Alcohol Does It Take To Damage Your Liver?

Everyone’s vulnerability to liver damage from alcohol use is different. This can vary based on age, gender, weight and many other factors. Studies show3 that the most severe form of liver damage, cirrhosis, commonly only occurs after ten years of heavy drinking. Less severe forms of liver damage, however, can begin much sooner. Studies have found that just seven weeks4 of intermittent binge drinking can cause liver damage to develop.

What Are the First Signs of Liver Damage from Alcohol?

While many diseases have obvious signs as they begin, liver damage5 occurs very gradually, and many of the early signs are vague, making it difficult to clearly identify that liver damage may be occurring. Early signs of liver damage from alcohol may include5:

  • Nausea or gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Appetite changes

Pain in the liver may develop, but this is not common as an early sign of liver damage. These signs are not very specific, and someone who is developing liver damage will often not realize it until more advanced signs occur that indicate more extensive damage has happened.

Types of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

There are several types of alcohol-related liver disease5 that normally occur in a sequence, with one type leading to another.

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease is often the first form8 of liver problems caused by alcohol use. Also called hepatic steatosis, fatty liver disease occurs when alcohol use alters liver function, causing fat deposits to accumulate in the liver. This form of liver damage is reversible5 and often does not cause symptoms. The liver may become larger, but this is not likely to cause pain. While this condition does not normally cause symptoms, it predisposes people to more severe forms of liver damage.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver and is a more serious form of alcohol-related liver disease that can vary greatly in its severity. Hepatitis causes inflammation and potentially pain, and can start to affect how the liver functions to such an extent that more obvious symptoms develop. Hepatitis may also cause death of small areas of liver tissue. Some signs of alcoholic hepatitis9 may include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Ascites (fluid accumulation in the abdomen) 
  • Susceptibility to bleeding
  • Hyperammonemia6 (the accumulation of ammonia, a toxic chemical, in the blood)

These symptoms are signs of more severe liver disease and could indicate that the hepatitis is potentially life-threatening. While hepatitis can be serious, it is reversible.

Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Alcoholic cirrhosis7, or scarring of the liver, is the most advanced form of liver damage. Cirrhosis is permanent and progressive, causing lasting damage that accumulates over time. This scarring is normally due to the inflammation that is caused by hepatitis and can be avoided if hepatitis is quickly treated. There is no cure for cirrhosis, and the only available treatment option is a liver transplant. While a liver transplant can restore liver health, a prolonged period of abstinence is normally necessary to be eligible for a liver transplant.

Diagnosing Alcohol-Related Liver Damage

If you suspect that liver damage may be occurring, you should seek medical evaluation. Liver damage can often begin without symptoms, so you should have your liver health regularly tested if you consistently drink moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol, even if you do not have any symptoms. Liver damage can only be diagnosed by a medical professional. Your doctor will likely use a combination of blood work and imaging to determine if you have liver damage.

Liver damage occurs slowly and does not have many significant symptoms in its early stages. Liver damage is also often reversible5 in its early stages, but not in its later stages. This makes early diagnosis of liver problems important, but also difficult due to the lack of initial symptoms.

Related Topic: Why Does Alcohol Make You Pee?

Treating Alcohol-Related Liver Damage

The most effective way to approach alcohol-related liver damage is to stop using alcohol. Alcohol is what is causing the liver damage, and any damage will only get worse if alcohol use is continued. Even if you have cirrhosis, stopping alcohol use can reduce inflammation and stop the development of further scar tissue.

There are several treatments available that treat the symptoms that liver damage causes, but treating the damage itself requires either optimizing remaining liver function or, in severe cases, getting a liver transplant. However, transplants are often not available to individuals who have alcohol-related liver disease, as a prolonged period of sobriety is necessary to be eligible for a transplant.

Stopping alcohol use is the best thing you can do for your liver health, but it can be difficult to do after a prolonged period of consistent alcohol use. The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper has a proven track record of helping those struggling to achieve their sobriety goals. We invite you to reach out to one of our caring team members to learn more about how we can help you achieve lasting sobriety.

Sources

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” June 2021. Accessed November 12, 2021.
  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Liver: Anatomy and Functions.” 2021. Accessed November 12, 2021.
  3. Bruha, Radan; Karel Dvorak, Karel; Petrtyl, Jaromir. “Alcoholic liver disease.” World Journal of Hepatology, March 27, 2012. Accessed November 12, 2021.
  4. Farley, Pete. “Binge Drinking May Quickly Lead to Liver Damage.” University of California San Francisco, January 19, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2021.
  5. Jackson, Whitney. “Alcohol-Related Liver Disease.” Merck Manuals, May 2021. Accessed November 12, 2021.
  6. Ali, Rimsha & Nagalli, Shivaraj. “Hyperammonemia.” StatPearls, August 11, 2021. Accessed November 12, 2021.
  7. HSE. “Alcohol’s effect on the body.” August 11, 2019. Accessed November 12, 2021.
  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Fatty Liver Disease.” MedlinePlus, April 26, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2021.
  9. Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Alcoholic Hepatitis.” Accessed November 12, 2021.

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