It only took three years of heavy drinking for Lance Juracka to die from alcohol-related liver disease. He was 36. Ian Whitcomb was just 30 when he was diagnosed with advanced-stage cirrhosis of the liver. Rachel Martin was 38 when doctors told her she could die within the month as a result of her drinking. According to data from the British Medical Journal, cases like these are not uncommon—deaths from cirrhosis among young adults have been significantly rising since 1999.
“It seems almost like an epidemic we’re seeing, with these increasing numbers,” says Tinsay Woreta, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins. She adds that the rise in alcohol-related liver disease deaths mirrors the rise in people in their twenties and thirties seeking transplants. Unfortunately, many don’t get help in time.
The Consequences of Alcoholism on the Liver
After five years of alcohol abuse, Ashely Hartshorn died at the age of 32, before being able to receive the treatment she desperately needed. “She wanted so badly to quit drinking, but the shame and the fear kept her from being able to allow herself to reach out for help. We were ignorant to the effects that alcohol has on the body. I thought she had time, time to hit rock bottom and time to seek help,” says her mother, Brenda Padgett.
“Alcohol-related liver cirrhosis used to be considered a disease that would happen after 30 years of heavy alcohol consumption,’’ says Dr. Vijay Shah, who heads the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the Mayo Clinic. This is no longer the case. The toll that alcohol takes on the body is occurring much more rapidly than most realize.
It’s nearly impossible to predict for how long one could abuse alcohol before suffering from liver disease, or other medical complications. When it comes to liver damage, the symptoms aren’t always obvious or can be easy for individuals to ignore. “That’s the trickiest part about the liver. It is a dumb organ. It doesn’t complain about anything until it’s too late,” says Linda Yoder, a physician assistant who specializes in treating people with liver disease.
For three years, Jordan Mattingly was unaware of the damage that his daily half-fifth of vodka was having on his body. Then one day he started experiencing acute stomach pains and went to the hospital. He was diagnosed with alcoholic liver hepatitis and cirrhosis. He’s now 28 and left with an uncertain future. He hopes that his youth will help his liver recover.
Alcohol and Liver Disease
- Heavy drinking can lead to three types of liver disease: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and alcohol-related cirrhosis.
- Up to 35 percent of heavy drinkers will develop hepatitis, while as many as 20 percent will develop cirrhosis.
- The early stages of liver damage can be reversed; however, cirrhosis is not reversible and can lead to fatal liver failure.
Symptoms of Liver Disease
Because they mimic the symptoms of a common stomachache or food poisoning, the first symptoms of liver disease rarely raise any flags, allowing the disease to progress. Early symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
Continued alcohol consumption without treatment will cause the disease to worsen. Symptoms of later-stage liver disease include:
- Itchy skin
- Swelling of limbs
- Build up of fluid around the abdomen
- Significant weight loss
Treatment for Liver Disease
Treatment varies depending on the level of damage that alcohol has caused, but no matter how mild or severe the damage is, the first step is to stop drinking alcohol. Those in the early stages of liver disease can reverse the damage in as little as one month of abstaining from alcohol. However, it is important to highlight that they must remain abstinent even after the damage has been reversed, as consuming alcohol again could cause the disease to return.
Those suffering from more severe liver damage may need medication and changes to their nutritional and exercise habits. Those with irreversible liver damage only have one option—a liver transplant.
Signs You Might Have a Problem with Alcohol
- You keep saying you will cut back or quit drinking but haven’t
- Your social life revolves around alcohol
- Your tolerance is much higher than it used to be
- Others have pointed out changes in your personality
- You experience memory loss
- You are isolating yourself from friends and family
- You experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking
- You use alcohol to avoid dealing with your emotions
- Others have suggested that you may have a problem with alcohol
- Your relationship with alcohol is starting to affect your relationships with your loved ones
- Your drinking habits are impacting your work, school, or finances
Problem drinking looks different for everyone. It doesn’t always look like stumbling out of bars and repeated DUIs. If you recognize yourself in any of the above statements, you may have a problem with alcohol that could put you at risk for developing liver disease.
What to Do If You Are Struggling with Alcohol Abuse
“Alcohol detoxing is a very intense process, and the person undergoing detoxification needs constant supervision by a licensed professional. Suddenly going ‘cold turkey’ can have serious consequences, like hallucinations, convulsions, or even heart failure,” says Mountainside’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Randall Dwenger. “At a treatment facility, there are medications that can prevent these outcomes,” he adds. For this reason, detoxing in a treatment center is often recommended as the first step to recovery.
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcoholism or other substance abuse, there are resources for them and for you. Check out Mountainside’s Support Group offerings, including Friends & Family Support Groups. You can also explore all of Mountainside’s Programs and Offerings to find the solutions that work best for you.