Liver Disease Is On The Rise: How Can You Protect Your Health?

Table of Contents

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?

help with alcohol addiction ria health
Need Help or Have Questions?

Schedule a private call with a Ria Health team member and we can help you get started.

What’s Causing the Increase in Liver Disease?

doctors gathered around an operating table
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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?

woman wearing mask with her head in her hands
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

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
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea

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.

Have questions about online alcohol treatment?

or call (800) 504-5360

Written By:
Ria Health Team
Ria Health’s editorial team is a group of experienced copywriters, researchers, and healthcare professionals dedicated to removing stigma and improving public knowledge around alcohol use disorder. Articles written by the “Ria Team” are collaborative works completed by several members of our writing team, fact-checked and edited to a high standard of empathy and accuracy.
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.
Is My Drinking Normal?

Take our short alcohol quiz to learn where you fall on the drinking spectrum and if you might benefit from quitting or cutting back on alcohol.