Tests & Procedures Index



Alcoholic Hepatitis

What is alcoholic hepatitis?

Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver, resulting in liver cell damage and destruction. Alcoholic hepatitis is a complex problem and is a precursor to chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. If an individual develops alcoholic hepatitis and stops drinking, the inflammation is often reversible over time. However, if the individual has already developed cirrhosis, the liver disease can progress rapidly to liver failure.

What are the symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis?

The following are the most common symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal tenderness or pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting blood or material that looks like coffee grounds
  • Spider-like blood vessels in the skin
  • Ascites--fluid build-up in the abdominal cavity
  • Poor appetite
  • Jaundice--yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Dry mouth and feeling very thirsty
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling ill

The symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is alcoholic hepatitis diagnosed?

In addition to complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for alcoholic hepatitis may include the following:

  • Specific laboratory blood tests, such as the following:
    • Liver function studies
    • Blood cell counts
    • Bleeding times
    • Electrolyte tests
    • Tests for other chemicals in the body
  • Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan). This diagnostic imaging procedure uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI is a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radio frequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body. The patient lies on a bed that moves into the cylindrical MRI machine. The machine takes a series of pictures of the inside of the body using a magnetic field and radio waves. The computer enhances the pictures produced. The test is painless, and does not involve exposure to radiation. Because the MRI machine is like a tunnel, some people are claustrophobic or unable to hold still during the test, and may be given a sedative to help them relax. Metal objects cannot be present in the MRI room, so people with pacemakers or metal clips or rods inside the body cannot have this test done. All jewelry must be removed before the procedure. 
  • Liver biopsyA procedure in which tissue samples from the liver are removed (with a needle or during surgery) from the body for examination under a microscope.

Treatment for alcoholic hepatitis

Specific treatment for alcoholic hepatitis will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

The individual with alcoholic hepatitis may be admitted to the hospital or treated on an outpatient basis. Abstinence from alcohol is essential for reversing the hepatitis. This is a complex problem that may require an alcohol treatment program. There is no medication to cure alcoholic hepatitis; therefore, treatment involves reducing the symptoms and halting the progression of the disease.

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Last reviewed: 3/23/2012