What are the early signs of liver damage?

What are the early signs of liver damage? header graphic

Sadly, there often aren’t any noticeable symptoms of alcoholic liver damage until serious (sometimes irreversible) damage has occurred.

You may notice:

  • You become drunk quicker (lower tolerance)
  • You suffer more severe hangovers
  • Your stomach sticks out more than usual
  • You have pain in the right upper abdomen

Healthy Smooth Liver, Damaged Discolored Textured Liver

Alcoholics generally progress through three distinct liver diseases as drinking continues (outlined below).

What is Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?

In 20% of heavy drinkers, fat builds up in the liver and causes swelling that impairs function.

Symptoms: None usually (just an enlarged liver).

Outcome: Reversible, if drinking stops.
Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease graphic

What is Alcoholic Hepatitis (Liver Fibrosis)?

As heavy drinking continues, the liver becomes inflamed and scarred. Blood flow is disrupted, which slows the organ’s essential functions.

Symptoms: Potentially none at first, then:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Fever
  • Pain or tenderness in the right upper abdomen

Outcome: In severe cases, there’s a 50% mortality rate. If drinking continues, 40% will develop into cirrhosis.
Alcoholic Hepatitis graphic

What is Alcoholic Cirrhosis?

Over time, scar tissue permanetly overtakes normal liver tissue. Blood flow is blocked, preventing the organ from working properly. Those with cirrhosis have been drinking heavily for 17 years on average.

Symptoms: Many people are still unaware at this stage.

Early symptoms:

  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Poor appetite
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Mild pain or discomfort in the upper right side of your abdomen

Distinct symptoms:

  • Red palms
  • Shortening of muscles in the fingers
  • White nails or thickening and widening of the fingers and nails

Late-stage symptoms:

  • Bruising and bleeding easily
  • Confusion, difficulty thinking, memory loss, personality changes, or sleep disorders
  • Swelling in your lower legs, ankles or feet
  • Bloating from the buildup of fluid in your abdomen
  • Severe itchy skin
  • Darkening of the color of your urine
  • Jaundice
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Liver failure

Outcome: While cirrhosis of the liver is a serious illness leading to many deaths, the 5–year survival rate for people with early stage cirrhosis who stop drinking is 90%.
Alcoholic Cirrhosis graphic

How do you know if your liver is failing when there are no early symptoms?

Long before you notice any symptoms, liver cells start dying at a higher rate than usual, which can be detected on a blood test. Liver enzymes (SGPT, SGOT and GGTP, maybe LDH or Alkaline Phosphatase) will be slightly elevated. The higher the levels, the worse the condition of the liver.

A doctor may also be able to feel an enlarged liver during a physical exam.

(If you’re living in alcohol addiction, you already know you’re doing damage to your liver and you should stop drinking).

Why do alcoholics get yellow skin?

When red blood cells break down, they create bilirubin. The liver processes bilirubin before it is excreted in our feces (giving it a brown color).  If the liver isn’t working properly, bilirubin builds up. Bilirubin has a yellow-orange pigment. When the levels are high enough, this pigment starts to become visible in the skin or eyes.

Can the liver repair itself after years of drinking?

Yes! Remember:

  • The best treatment is early detection.
  • Stopping your drinking will always improve your outcome.
  • Addiction treatment centers (like JourneyPure) can help you actually stop drinking.

Sources

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “The Epidemiology of Alcoholic Liver Disease.”
World Journal of Hepatology: Symptoms and Signs of Acute Alcoholic Hepatitis.”
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Symptoms & Causes of Cirrhosis.”

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