Alcoholic liver disease

Last updated: October 7, 2022

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Alcoholic liver disease (ALD) refers to a range of progressive liver conditions caused by chronic and excessive alcohol consumption. One-third of the US population consumes alcohol above the recommended levels, increasing their risk of ALD. There are three stages of ALD, which may or may not occur sequentially. The first stage is typically asymptomatic and involves the development of (potentially) reversible alcoholic fatty liver. Continued alcohol consumption will lead to alcoholic hepatitis, the second stage, which often becomes chronic. Clinical findings in this stage include jaundice, fatigue, and fever. In the third and final stage, the patient develops alcoholic cirrhosis. Patient history, transaminase levels, and imaging studies are crucial for diagnosis and show different patterns of hepatic injury. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis is a differential diagnosis and is currently regarded as an important cause of cirrhosis. Treatment of ALD requires complete cessation of alcohol use.

The management of alcoholic hepatitis, including its diagnosis and treatment, is described in detail elsewhere.

Epidemiologytoggle arrow icon


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

Etiologytoggle arrow icon


Pathophysiologytoggle arrow icon

Clinical featurestoggle arrow icon

The stages of ALD may overlap and do not necessarily occur in sequence.

Alcoholic fatty liver (reversible)

  • Mostly asymptomatic
  • Some patients report feeling a sensation of pressure in the upper abdominal area.
  • Hepatomegaly: soft in consistency
  • Regresses after cessation of alcohol consumption
  • Acute exacerbation with risk of hepatic failure is rare.

Alcoholic hepatitis (reversible in mild cases)

See “Alcoholic hepatitis.”

Alcohol-related cirrhosis (irreversible)

  • Final stage of ALD
  • See “Clinical features” in cirrhosis.


Diagnosticstoggle arrow icon

A history of alcohol abuse that correlates with typical laboratory and imaging findings is diagnostic of alcoholic liver disease.

Alcoholic fatty liver

Imaging and laboratory studies in the case of alcoholic fatty liver will show a reversal of changes within a month if the patient abstains from alcohol.

Alcoholic hepatitis

See “Alcoholic hepatitis.”

Alcohol-related cirrhosis


Pathologytoggle arrow icon

Alcoholic fatty liver and mild alcoholic hepatitis may be reversible after cessation of alcohol intake. However, severe alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis are not reversible!


Treatmenttoggle arrow icon

Complicationstoggle arrow icon

Decompensated cirrhosis

Mainly characterized by a constellation of clinical features resulting from decreased hepatic function:

Other organ damage following chronic alcohol use

Zieve syndrome

We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.

Referencestoggle arrow icon

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