Alcohol is consumed widely in British society and most people drink within safe limits. There is no absolute level at which the amount of alcohol consumed suddenly becomes medically unsafe, as the risk of health problems gradually increases with intake.
How much can I drink?
Generally the risk of developing health problems is low for men drinking less than 21 units of alcohol per week and for women drinking less than 14 units per week. This is the basis of current recommended safe maximum intakes. The risk of alcohol related problems increases very markedly for men drinking more than 50 units per week and women more than 35 units per week
What happens if I drink too much?
Drinking too much alcohol can lead to health problems affecting virtually any organ. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, inflammation of the pancreas, stomach ulcers and diseases of the liver. Alcohol excess leads to three types of liver conditions - fatty liver, hepatitis, and cirrhosis. Any, or all, of these conditions can occur at the same time in the same person.
What is a Fatty Liver?
Fatty liver is a build-up of fat within liver cells and will occur in most people who regularly drink heavily and it can also be common with diabetes and obesity. Fatty liver does not usually cause symptoms and is usually found when liver blood tests are taken for other reasons. It will usually resolve with decreased drinking however, it may be an early sign that someone’s consumption is at potentially harmful levels.
Can I develop Hepatitis from drinking?
Alcoholic hepatitis is inflammation of the liver due to excessive drinking and it is always accompanied by some degree of fatty liver. The inflammation can range from mild to life threatening. Mild hepatitis causes few symptoms and may only present due to an abnormal liver blood test. At the more severe end of the spectrum it may cause bruising, jaundice and confusion and in these cases, admission into hospital is usually necessary. Severe alcoholic hepatitis carries a greater than 30% chance of fatality and may require treatment with steroids.
What is Liver Cirrhosis?
Alcoholic cirrhosis refers to scarring of the liver and it often follows a long period of mild hepatitis. Cirrhosis may also be caused by many problems including chronic viral hepatitis, immune disorders and some hereditary diseases. Although the scarring is gradual, it may suddenly cause illness when this reaches a threshold where it exceeds the body’s ability to cope. It may present with minor abnormalities on blood tests, or more severe problems such as liver failure or bleeding from internal varicose veins. Although the scarring is permanent over 90% of patients will recover to live near normal lives if they stop drinking to allow the remaining (unscarred) liver cells to work well. The main treatment of alcoholic cirrhosis is abstinence from alcohol, nutritional support and specific treatment of any complications that may occur. Rarely, it can require a liver transplantation however; this is only possible for people who have been abstinent for at least 6 months.