Early Signs of Liver Damage From Drinking

Medically reviewed by Dr. Paul R. Linde, MD on February 18, 2021

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It’s well known that alcohol can have a number of severe impacts on your health. But because these negative consequences sometimes take time to appear, it’s not always clear what’s happening with your body behind the scenes. Alcoholic liver disease can be particularly hard to notice before it does damage.

Below we’ll address frequently asked questions about alcohol and your liver, patterns of drinking that put you at higher risk, and early signs of liver damage from drinking.

Can Alcohol Hurt Your Liver?

To begin with, yes, drinking alcohol can hurt your liver. Your liver is the primary organ responsible for processing alcohol through your system. When you drink to excess it puts a strain on this vital organ, which can cause inflammation and damaged cells. Even a single night of binge drinking can have a negative impact.

How does alcohol affect the liver?

Liver damage from alcohol happens in several stages, or levels of extremity:

  • Fatty Liver: Exactly as it sounds—the buildup of fat in your liver. This condition is generally reversible, and may not cause serious health problems. You may not even have symptoms. But it can be a warning sign that you’re drinking too much.
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis: If you continue to drink heavily your liver can become inflamed, and you may experience significant health consequences. This disease is more serious, but may be reversed.
  • Cirrhosis: The buildup of scar tissue in your liver. This is irreversible, and can cause severe illness. If cirrhosis progresses far enough, you may need a liver transplant or experience liver failure.
infographic showing 4 stages of alcoholic liver disease

How Much Drinking Causes Liver Damage?

The threshold of high risk for alcoholic hepatitis is generally considered 3-4 drinks a day over an extended period of time. People who develop cirrhosis often drink more than 6 servings of alcohol per day. Binge drinking—more than 4-5 servings of alcohol in a 2 hour period—can also cause liver damage.

How many years of drinking before liver damage?

People with alcoholic hepatitis have often been drinking heavily for several years before developing the condition. Those with cirrhosis often have more than 10 years of heavy consumption under their belt. 50 percent of men who drink 10 servings a day for 20 years develop cirrhosis.

But it’s not just heavy, daily drinkers who are at risk. One study suggests that even seven weeks of occasional binge drinking can cause early stages of liver damage. How long, and how much alcohol it takes to cause damage will be different for each person. If you have a family history of alcoholism or liver disease, or other underlying conditions, you should be especially careful.

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How To Know If You Have Liver Damage From Alcohol

What are the first signs of liver damage from alcohol? Fatty liver often has no symptoms. But as your liver begins to suffer from excessive alcohol consumption, you may experience some of these early signs of liver damage from drinking:

  • Tenderness in the area of the liver
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea

If inflammation has become more severe, you may experience:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • Swelling in the ankles and feet
  • Fever
  • Itchy skin
  • Increased sensitivity to illness

Early symptoms of liver failure from alcohol

Unfortunately, alcohol-related liver disease often shows no symptoms until it becomes severe, and your liver is struggling to function. As a result, early symptoms of liver failure may be similar to above. As liver failure progresses, you may also experience:

  • Disorientation
  • Ascites (a buildup of fluid in the abdomen)
  • Blood in your vomit or feces
  • Hepatic encephalopathy (brain damage from increased blood toxins)

As a result, if you drink heavily and experience any of these early signs, you should visit a doctor to have your liver checked as soon as possible. Catching liver disease early is one of the only ways to prevent serious consequences.

Can the Liver Repair Itself After Years Of Drinking?

pouring wine, early signs of liver damage from alcohol
Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

This depends on how severe the damage to your liver is. Your liver is a very resilient organ. Fatty liver will often resolve on its own if you change your diet and drinking patterns. Alcoholic hepatitis is also often reversible, depending on how advanced the condition is. Quitting drinking, and in some cases taking medication, can reduce inflammation and allow your liver to heal.

Cirrhosis, on the other hand, cannot be cured. If you have scar tissue in your liver, it will remain there permanently. The best thing you can do for cirrhosis is to stop drinking as quickly as you can, and consult with your doctor on how to manage your condition.

What can I drink to flush my liver?

While liver cleanses are common, there’s unfortunately little evidence that they truly work. In fact, some over-the-counter products may actually put stress on your liver, causing more harm than good.

Some limited studies suggest that milk thistle can ease inflammation. Regular coffee consumption may also reduce cirrhosis risk. But there are other negative consequences from consuming too much caffeine, or consuming too much of anything in the hopes of a quick fix. The best way to help your liver heal is make long-term changes: exercise, eat healthy, and limit your drinking.

Can you drink moderately with fatty liver?

If you’ve been diagnosed with alcoholic fatty liver disease, it’s best to stop drinking completely. Studies show that even light drinking makes you more likely to progress to more serious illness.

Once your liver has returned to normal, it may be possible to drink moderately. But it’s important to continue to check on the health of your liver, and not put it under excessive stress.

Can you drink alcohol with elevated liver enzymes?

Since elevated liver enzymes are a sign of liver inflammation or damage, you should avoid alcohol with this condition also—especially if the cause is not yet clear.

Consult with your doctor to figure out what is affecting your enzyme levels. If alcohol is not the main cause, and you don’t have liver damage, it may be okay to drink in moderation once the issue has been resolved.

What Is Cirrhosis Of The Liver?

Cirrhosis of the liver is the development of scar tissue within this essential organ. This scar tissue is unable to carry out the liver’s normal functions. As a consequence, the more of this tissue you have, the less your liver is able to do its job. In advanced cases, this can lead to liver failure.

Can cirrhosis of the liver be reversed?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Cirrhosis of the liver is permanent. The only thing you can do is stop drinking, care for your health, and prevent it from getting any worse.

How long can you live with cirrhosis of the liver?

This depends on the severity. If only a small percentage of your liver is scarred, it may be able to keep functioning, and you may be able to live for a while with this illness. But for those experiencing complications from advanced alcoholic cirrhosis, only about 50 percent live for more than 5 years. Quitting drinking can significantly improve your chances in any case.

What are the final stages of cirrhosis of the liver?

The final stage of cirrhosis is liver failure. At this point, your liver has enough scar tissue that it can no longer function properly. Symptoms include fatigue, jaundice, ascites (the buildup of fluid in the abdomen), nausea, vomiting, severe itching of the skin, and even brain damage (hepatic encephalopathy). This stage is life threatening, and the only treatment is a liver transplant.

Read More: Cirrhosis of the Liver

Preventing Alcoholic Liver Disease

Because liver damage can stay hidden until it becomes severe, the best treatment for alcoholic liver disease is prevention. Drinking in moderation, avoiding binge drinking, and generally caring for your overall health will give you the best chance of avoiding liver illness.

If you’re concerned about the health of your liver, but struggling to cut back on alcohol, there are new solutions. Ria Health offers comprehensive support for alcohol abuse, 100 percent from an app on your smartphone.

Our expert medical team is experienced in helping people with liver disease quit drinking. We offer a combination of safe prescription medications, counseling, and digital tools, and we customize treatment to each person’s needs.

Get in touch with a member of our team today, or learn more about how it works.

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Written By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
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