Alcoholic hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by drinking alcohol.
Alcoholic hepatitis is most likely to occur in people who drink heavily over many years. However, the relationship between drinking and alcoholic hepatitis is complex. Not all heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis, and the disease can occur in people who drink only moderately.
The most common sign of alcoholic hepatitis is yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice).
Other signs and symptoms include:
Malnutrition is common in people with alcoholic hepatitis. Drinking large amounts of alcohol suppresses the appetite, and heavy drinkers get most of their calories from alcohol.
Additional signs and symptoms that occur with severe alcoholic hepatitis include:
- Fluid accumulation in your abdomen (ascites)
- Confusion and behavior changes due to a buildup of toxins normally broken down and eliminated by the liver
- Kidney and liver failure
When to see a doctor
Alcoholic hepatitis is a serious, often deadly disease.
See your doctor if you:
- Have signs or symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis
- Can’t control your drinking
- Would like help cutting back on your drinking
Alcoholic hepatitis develops when the alcohol you drink damages your liver. Just how alcohol damages the liver — and why it does so only in some heavy drinkers — isn’t clear.
These factors are known to play a role in alcoholic hepatitis:
- The body’s process for breaking down alcohol produces highly toxic chemicals.
- These chemicals trigger inflammation that destroys liver cells.
- Over time, scars replace healthy liver tissue, interfering with liver function.
- This irreversible scarring (cirrhosis) is the final stage of alcoholic liver disease.
Other factors that can contribute to alcoholic hepatitis include:
- Other types of hepatitis. If you have hepatitis C and also drink — even moderately — you’re more likely to develop cirrhosis than if you don’t drink.
- Malnutrition. Many people who drink heavily are malnourished because they eat poorly or because alcohol and its byproducts prevent the body from properly absorbing nutrients. Lack of nutrients contributes to liver cell damage.