While COVID-19 has dominated our lives for the past year, other serious public health problems have been growing in the background. In 2020, hospitals from Michigan to California began reporting a staggering 30 percent increase in alcohol-related liver disease. Even with vaccines rolling out across the nation, this “pandemic within a pandemic” may continue long after COVID is behind us.
So, what’s causing this surge? How is the recent spike in liver disease linked to COVID-19, and what can we do to prevent it?
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What’s Causing the Increase in Liver Disease?
Before the pandemic, liver disease was already on the rise. From 1999 to 2016, deaths from cirrhosis jumped by 65 percent. And, particularly among young adults, this increase was linked to alcohol abuse.
But since the emergence of COVID-19, this rise in alcohol-related liver disease has entered a whole new phase—several times the usual statistics. So, what’s driving such a big jump in this already disturbing trend?
While some COVID patients are showing signs of liver damage from the disease, it’s really two broader consequences of the pandemic causing most of the problems.
A Surge in Alcohol Consumption
As the lockdowns began in 2020, use of drugs and alcohol among Americans saw a major jump. In a federal survey, more than 13 percent of people started or increased their substance use in the first half of 2020. And in another 2020 study, men and women reported 14 and 17 percent increases, respectively, in how often they drank.
Alcohol sales from 2020 tell a similar story. While many restaurants and bars closed or adjusted operations, alcohol sales outside of these venues increased 24 percent. In fact, one popular alcohol delivery app saw an astounding 350 percent rise in business compared with the previous year.
So, why were people drinking so much more during 2020? The reasons are complicated, but a lot of it comes down to the pandemic’s impact on people’s mental health.
Increasing Mental Health Challenges
Data from 2020 shows that the number of people looking for mental health help, screening for moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression, or having suicidal thoughts all increased from the year before.
There are many reasons for this increase in depression and anxiety—including real fear over the dangers of COVID-19, economic hardship, social upheaval, and overall uncertainty about the future. And since several waves of quarantines and lockdowns forced many people into isolation, those in need often lacked access to healthy coping outlets, or sufficient social support.
To cope emotionally, or even just to pass the time, many people turned to alcohol. And while drinking alone isn’t always dangerous in moderation, drinking several beers or a bottle of wine a night may quickly develop into alcohol use disorder. This, in turn, can lead to liver disease—including fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and eventually even liver cancer.
While alcoholic liver disease usually develops over years of heavy drinking, it can sometimes progress very quickly—especially if you binge drink. This is one likely reason why so many people developed such severe liver damage so quickly.
Am I At Risk?
If you’ve been drinking more than usual during COVID-19, you’re clearly not alone. But you should be aware of the impact it may be having on your body. Early signs of liver disease include:
- Tenderness in the area of the liver
- Unexplained weight loss
- Nausea or loss of appetite
If you are experiencing any of these, or you’re simply concerned about your drinking, talk to your doctor. They may recommend you get a liver function test.
There are also several steps you can take on your own to prevent liver disease and improve your liver health:
- Limit sugary, fatty foods, and add some liver cleansing foods into your diet.
- Identify some new coping mechanisms for stress besides alcohol, and seek emotional and mental health support if you’re struggling.
- Stop drinking alcohol, or limit yourself to moderation. Drinking more than 1 drink per day for women, or 2 per day for men, puts you at greater risk.
If you’ve gotten into the habit of drinking to cope during COVID-19, and you’re having trouble cutting back, there are new solutions that can help—including telemedicine. You can now talk to a medical professional from an app on your phone, get anti-craving medication sent to your door, and even meet weekly with a recovery coach through video chat. Getting help no longer needs to mean putting your life on hold.