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Alcohol and liver disease

Drinking more than the recommended limits of alcohol (alcohol misuse) can lead to serious health problems.

Most people think that alcohol is fairly harmless and just something to be enjoyed. Other than a few ill-effects; a hangover the next day or putting on a little bit of weight, many people do not know about the unseen damage alcohol can cause to your body.

Each year in the UK, over 250,000 people are admitted to hospital solely because of alcohol-related illnesses and a further one million people are admitted with alcohol-related illnesses being partially responsible.

Alcohol-related illness accounts for almost three quarters of all admissions to Accident and Emergencies (A&E) from midnight until five am at weekends. Each year over 6,500 people will die because of an illness directly related to alcohol and alcohol-related admissions and deaths costs the NHS over £3.5 billion per year.

There are three main types of alcohol misuse:

  • hazardous drinking: drinking over the recommended limits
  • harmful drinking: drinking over the recommended limits and experiencing alcohol-related health problems
  • dependent drinking: feeling unable to function without alcohol

Many people who have alcohol-related health problems aren't alcohol dependant

Drinking heavily, over a short period, leads to a rapid rise in blood alcohol concentration and consequently to ‘drunkenness’. The effect on behaviour varies from one person to another and ranges from relaxation and exhilaration, to memory loss, violent behaviour and nausea. In more severe cases it can lead to coma.

A rapidly rising blood alcohol level can cause you to say things or act in a way that might embarrass you later. It can also lead to physical accidents, vehicle accidents, unsafe sex and can make you more vulnerable to a physical attack; putting you at risk of being infected with viral hepatitis, HIV and other  STI’s (sexually transmitted infections).

Very high blood alcohol levels can cause your brain’s control over the respiratory system to become paralysed, cause heart irregularities, strokes and possibly loss of life.


Am I drinking too much?

If you are healthy, eat a balanced diet and take regular exercise, sensible drinking should not cause your liver problems. But what is sensible drinking?

The Department of Health currently offers the following guidelines:

  • Both men and women should not regularly drink more than 14 units in a week.
  • It is advisable to take 48 consecutive hours off drinking a week to allow your liver to recover.

For more information on sensible drinking and units download our publication below or visit:  NHS Choices

What does alcohol free or low alcohol mean?

The four descriptors that are used on food/bottle labelling are:

  • Low alcohol – product must be 1.2% ABV or below
  • Non-alcoholic – Shall not be used in conjunction with a name commonly associated with an alcoholic drink, except in the composite name “non-alcoholic wine” when that composite name is used in accordance with regulation 43
  • Alcohol free – product must be 0.05% ABV or below
  • De-alcoholised – product must be 0.5% ABV or lower

How do I look after my liver?

Looking after your liver doesn’t have to be difficult!

Top Tips for a healthy liver:

  • Enjoy more fruit and veg and avoid sugary drinks.
  • Exercise regularly to burn the fat in your liver and other organs.
  • Take 2-3 consecutive days off alcohol a week, to let your liver cells recover and repair themselves.
  • Practise safe sex.

For full information please download our publication below.


Please visit the support section of our website for information on Support groups in your area or visit our Useful Links section for other organisations who may be able to offer information and support.

Download publication

Alcohol 2017


Download:  Alcohol & LD ALD/07/17.pdf

Reviewed by: Professor Chris Day MA PhD MD FRCP Professor of Liver Medicine, Institute of Cellular Medicine, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Professor Mark Thurz, Professor of Hepatology, Hepatology Section, Division of Medicine, Imperial College, London: Dr Tahir Shah, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham

 View references here


Further information

The Trust has been donated the use of this video discussing the physiology of alcohol on the liver – it is aimed at medical students but after asking for feedback, some patients have also said they find it useful. It can be quite technical, so please discuss any content that you are unsure about with your medical team.


Drinkaware Video

Alcohol and Health in Older People

Online resource providing an overview of the growing relevance of alcohol and how it interacts with the health of older people (defined here as those aged over 55 years).

Leeds Transplant Centre

See the following useful information regarding alcohol related liver disease and transplants:
Leeds Alcohol and the liver workbook