Does Drinking Alcohol Cause Cirrhosis?

close up of beer being poured into a glass
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If you are wondering whether or not drinking alcohol can cause cirrhosis of the liver, it depends on just how much you are drinking.

Your Liver and Cirrhosis

The liver carries out several necessary functions, including detoxifying harmful substances in your body, cleaning your blood, and making vital nutrients. The liver is your largest internal organ. About the size of a football, it is located mainly in the upper right portion of your abdomen, beneath the diaphragm and above your stomach.

Cirrhosis is a liver disease that can develop when your liver is repeatedly damaged. Much like the scar tissue that forms on your skin after a cut, the liver also forms scar tissue while repairing itself.

A little scar tissue is not a problem for the liver, but too much scarring interferes with how the liver works, blocking the flow of blood through the liver, slowing the liver's ability to process nutrients, and eventually compromising essential liver function. This can even lead to liver failure or death, with more than 40,000 people in the U.S. dying from cirrhosis each year.

Causes

Several things can damage the liver and cause cirrhosis. Some of the most common are chronic alcohol abuse and chronic infection with hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses.

Other possible causes include:

  • Iron buildup in the body (hemochromatosis)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Copper accumulated in the liver (Wilson's disease)
  • Poorly formed bile ducts (biliary atresia)
  • Inherited disorders of sugar metabolism (galactosemia or glycogen storage disease)
  • Genetic digestive disorder (Alagille syndrome)
  • Liver disease caused by your body's immune system (autoimmune hepatitis)
  • Destruction of the bile ducts (primary biliary cirrhosis)
  • Hardening and scarring of the bile ducts (primary sclerosing cholangitis)
  • Infection such schistosomiasis
  • Medications such as methotrexate

Symptoms

Cirrhosis often has no signs or symptoms until liver damage is extensive. When signs and symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Bleeding easily
  • Bruising easily
  • Itchy skin
  • Yellow discoloration in the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Fluid accumulation in your abdomen (ascites)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Swelling in your legs
  • Weight loss
  • Confusion, drowsiness, and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
  • Spiderlike blood vessels on your skin
  • Redness in the palms of the hands
  • Testicular atrophy in men
  • Breast enlargement in men

Heavy Drinking, Cirrhosis, and Liver Disease

If you do not have liver disease, an occasional alcoholic drink probably won't cause cirrhosis. However, heavy drinking (defined as having 8 or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more for men) is known to cause cirrhosis. This can develop into alcoholic liver disease.

If you have existing liver disease, such as chronic hepatitis, you are at increased risk for developing cirrhosis if you drink alcohol. Drinking alcohol may also increase your risk of developing hepatocellular cancer.

The liver damage caused by cirrhosis generally can't be undone. But if liver cirrhosis is diagnosed early and the cause is treated, further damage can be limited and, rarely, reversed. If you already have cirrhosis, or if you have chronic hepatitis, it is important to avoid alcohol.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fast facts: chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. Updated May 30, 2013.

  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms & causes of cirrhosis. Updated March 2018.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and public health: frequently asked questions. Updated March 29, 2018.

  4. Testino G, Leone S, Borro P. Alcohol and hepatocellular carcinoma: a review and a point of view. World J Gastroenterol. 2014;20(43):15943-54. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i43.15943

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