Chronic heavy alcohol use can damage the liver, causing alcoholic liver disease. This occurs across a spectrum from fatty liver, to acute alcoholic hepatitis, to cirrhosis.
Fatty liver, where fat builds up in the liver cells, is very common in heavy drinkers and is reversible if drinking is reduced. However, a small percentage of people with fatty liver will develop alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Alcoholic hepatitis develops in 10% to 35% of heavy drinkers and is an acute injury to the liver that can present with symptoms of feeling unwell, tiredness, jaundice (yellow skin and whites of eyes), swollen stomach and enlarged tender liver. Death from liver failure can occur in severe cases.
Cirrhosis of the liver develops in 5% to15% of heavy drinkers and is where the liver is permanently damaged and replaced by scar tissue, so the liver can no longer function (to detoxify the body, make vital proteins, store vitamins and sugars, and make chemicals necessary for digestion). Cirrhosis can also lead to death from liver failure.