Why Cirrhosis of the Liver Threatens Heavy Drinkers

The damage cannot be reversed

One of the largest threats to the health of chronic heavy drinkers is the damage that long-time drinking can do to their liver. This can cause cirrhosis, the most severe form of alcoholic liver disease.

Close up of a woman pouring wine into a glass
Tanja Brckner / EyeEm / Getty Images

Normal liver function is essential to life. The liver performs hundreds of essential functions, without which the body can't survive.

  • In the United States, cirrhosis is a significant cause of death among young and middle-aged adults.
  • In 2015, 78,529 deaths were attributed to liver disease, according to the University of Southern California.
  • Approximately 10 to 35% of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis, and 10 to 20% develop cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis Can Develop Very Rapidly in Some

Usually, alcoholic cirrhosis develops after more than a decade of heavy drinking, but that is not always the case. Due to genetic factors, some heavy drinkers can develop cirrhosis much sooner. That is because some people have livers that are much more sensitive to alcohol.

Likewise, the amount of alcohol that can injure the liver varies greatly from person to person. In women, as few as two to three drinks per day have been linked with cirrhosis and in men, it is as few as three to four drinks per day.

High Rates of Drinking and Rates of Cirrhosis

However, studies have found that mortality rates from alcoholic liver disease rates are higher in areas where there are fewer policies regulating alcohol. It's also higher in areas with a greater number of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

In other words, in regions and groups in which alcohol consumption is heavy, death rates from cirrhosis are also increased.

Loss of Liver Function Is Fatal

A damaged liver cannot remove toxins from the blood. This causes them to accumulate in the blood and eventually the brain. There, toxins can dull mental functioning and cause personality changes, coma, and even death.

Loss of liver function affects the body in many ways. One of the well-known symptoms of cirrhosis is jaundice, which causes a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Generally, by the time jaundice develops, the liver has been severely damaged

It Cannot Be Reversed

Liver damage from cirrhosis cannot be reversed, but treatment can stop or delay further progression and reduce complications. If the cirrhosis is caused by long-term heavy drinking, the treatment is simply to abstain from any further alcohol. A healthy diet and avoiding alcohol are essential because the body needs all the nutrients it can get. Alcohol will only lead to more liver damage.

Doctors can treat other complications caused by the cirrhosis, but the damage done by heavy drinking cannot be undone. When complications cannot be controlled or when the liver becomes so damaged from scarring that it completely stops functioning, a liver transplant may be the only remaining alternative.

Even if a liver donor is found and a transplant accomplished, that is still not a 100% guaranteed cure. Although survival rates have improved greatly for liver transplant patients in recent years, 10 to 20% do not survive the transplant.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. University of Southern California. Keck School of Medicine. Alcohol misuse and alcoholic liver disease.

  2. American Liver Foundation. Alcohol related liver disease.

  3. Anstee QM, Daly AK, Day CP. Genetics of alcoholic liver disease. Semin Liver Dis. 2015 Nov;35(4):361-74. doi:10.1055/s-0035-1567832

  4. Simpson RF, Herman C, Liu B, et al. Alcohol drinking patterns and liver cirrhosis risk: analysis of the prospective UK million women study. Lancet. 2018;4(1):E41-E48. doi:10.1016/S2468-2667(18)30230-5

  5. Hadland SE, Xuan Z, Blanchette JG, Heeren TC, Swahn MH, Naimi TS. Alcohol policies and alcoholic cirrhosis mortality in the United States. Prev Chronic Dis. 2015;12:150200. doi:10.5888/pcd12.150200

  6. Columbia University. FAQs about life after liver transplant.

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.