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Alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver are often closely associated with one another. However, unlike dual diagnosis conditions such as addiction and bipolar disorder, cirrhosis is often caused directly by alcoholism and can be prevented merely by not drinking as much. Unfortunately, the nature of the disease of alcoholism can make it nearly impossible for some people to stop abusing alcohol – even in the face of a condition as serious as cirrhosis of the liver. And because the consequences of continued drinking and cirrhosis can lead to death, understanding the relationship between these two grave illnesses is imperative in order to help those who cannot help themselves.
Cirrhosis of the liver is generally associated with heavy drinkers, but there are a number of other causes of this disease, including viruses, blood disorders and other conditions. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse;
“In the United States, heavy alcohol consumption and chronic hepatitis C have been the most common causes of cirrhosis. Obesity is becoming a common cause of cirrhosis, either as the sole cause or in combination with alcohol, hepatitis C, or both. Many people with cirrhosis have more than one cause of liver damage. Cirrhosis is not caused by trauma to the liver or other acute, or short-term, causes of damage. Usually years of chronic injury are required to cause cirrhosis.” (1)
The final sentence in the preceding quote is a poignant reminder that when an alcoholic is suffering from end-stage cirrhosis, it is likely that by that point they have been drinking heavily for many years. However, neither alcoholism nor cirrhosis fit into a standardized set of symptoms and clinical cases can vary considerably from person to person. This can make identification difficult for both diseases – especially considering that a primary feature of alcoholism is a persistent state of denial in the afflicted person.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine points out that there are a number of variables that determine when cirrhosis sets in, how quickly it progresses and who is at most risk;
Other important factors include:
Despite the serious risks associated with cirrhosis of the liver, thousands of alcoholics will go on to develop this condition each year, despite significant efforts for the last several decades to promote public awareness about the matter. In fact, during the late eighties and early nineties efforts in this regard were so extensive that it resulted in a stereotypical public perception that alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver were synonymous with each other.
While it may be true that the prevalence of cirrhosis among heavy, long-term alcoholics is often quite high, cirrhosis of the liver is a common disease among the general population and has a high mortality rate once the disease has become well-established in the body. According to the Wikipedia entry for Cirrhosis,
“Cirrhosis and chronic liver disease were the 10th leading cause of death for men and the 12th for women in the United States in 2001, killing about 27,000 people each year. Established cirrhosis has a 10-year mortality of 34-66%, largely dependent on the cause of the cirrhosis; alcoholic cirrhosis has a worse prognosis than primary biliary cirrhosis and cirrhosis due to hepatitis. The risk of death due to all causes is increased twelvefold. . .” (3)
Because alcoholics often suffer from co-occurring diseases they can be especially vulnerable to liver disease as a consequence of a compromised immune system. Heavy drinkers often do not cope well with stress and may have risk factors for other serious diseases like diabetes, heart disease and kidney disorders. As a result, when cirrhosis sets in it can significantly exacerbate these conditions and cause news ones to occur. This is because cirrhosis causes the liver to be unable to remove toxins from the blood. In an article on the subject on Medicine.NET, Dr. Dennis Lee writes;
“In cirrhosis, the relationship between blood and liver cells is destroyed. Even though the liver cells that survive or are newly-formed may be able to produce and remove substances from the blood, they do not have the normal, intimate relationship with the blood, and this interferes with the liver cells’ ability to add or remove substances from the blood.” (4)
But because people who suffer from alcoholism are often in a state of denial about their physical and mental health, the assistance of loved ones is often required in order to get the right help. This requires an ability to properly identify the behaviors and signs of an alcoholic:
If someone you love is suffering from alcoholism and you fear that cirrhosis is a concern, then it is absolutely vital that you call the number at the top of your screen right now. We have alcoholism experts standing by 24 hours per day. Get a free, confidential consultation by picking up the phone now – someone’s life may depend on it.
(1) National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse Cirrhosis
(2) U.S. National Library of Medicine Alcohol Liver Disease MedlinePlus
(3) Wikipedia Cirrhosis
(4) Dennis Lee, MD Jay W. Marks, MD Cirrhosis (Cirrhosis of the Liver) Medicine.NET