Experts are warning that a rise in alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic plus a trend in expanding waistlines are helping to fuel an epidemic of liver disease. Over time, these insults can lead to fibrosis or cirrhosis.
In fact, a recent study led by Harvard estimated that a one-year increase in alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic will result in 8,000 additional deaths from alcohol-related liver disease, 18,700 cases of liver failure, and 1,000 cases of liver cancer by 2040.
Problem is, the epidemic is a silent one. Your liver could be losing the ability to do its job of filtering harmful substances from your blood long before symptoms ever show up.
Most of the time you don’t know your liver has been harmed until you develop the advanced symptoms of cirrhosis. “That’s the tough part of treatment,” says Anurag Maheshwari, M.D., a gastroenterologist with the Institute for Digestive Health and Liver Disease at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Convincing patients that they need to act now in order to avoid complications in the future can sometimes be a challenge, because they don’t feel any different today.”
Occasionally people with early stage liver disease experience fatigue, right-side abdominal pain, increased bruising or itching — symptoms that are usually missed because they could be caused by other ailments.
“If you have discomfort on your side, for instance, it could be a million other things,” says Jamile Wakim-Fleming, M.D., director of the Fatty Liver Disease Medical Home Program at Cleveland Clinic.
The signs of advanced disease are clearer. Any of the following symptoms necessitate immediate medical attention.
- Jaundice or yellowing of the eyes or skin
- Pain and distention of the abdomen due to the release of fluid from the liver
- Swelling of the lower legs due to fluid retention
- Confusion or forgetfulness. When the liver isn’t functioning properly, toxins build up in the blood and can travel to the brain, affecting brain function.
- Dark-colored urine
- Pale-colored stool
- Chronic fatigue
- Nausea or vomiting
It’s always better to prevent liver disease than to treat it. Here are some common — and not so common — risks and how you can avoid or stop the damage.
Risk No. 1: Alcohol
We all know that alcohol can be hard on your liver. But how much is too much?
Maheshwari notes that a safe alcohol limit may seem surprisingly low: no more than one alcoholic beverage a day (or 7 drinks in a one-week period) for women and two or fewer drinks for men (or 14 drinks over a week’s time).
“When patients drink alcohol in excess, beyond the capacity of the liver to metabolize it, the excess alcohol is turned into fat and stored,” Maheshwari says. “Called steatosis, this fat interferes with the liver’s function and causes cell death.”