Alcohol and Liver Disease

Alcohol is a major cause of liver disease in Australia. [1,2] Liver disease is rising among young adults. [1]

How does alcohol harm my liver?

Alcohol is broken down in the digestive system, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Alcohol starts being digested in the mouth, and must pass through the remainder of the digestive system. The alcohol in the blood is slowly broken down in the liver. Blood alcohol concentration is very high in the liver, and the liver produces enzymes to digest the alcohol. A toxic substance called acetaldehyde is produced by the liver to digest the alcohol. Acetaldehyde destroys liver cells. [2,3]

Why is the liver affected by alcohol?

Alcohol metabolism (digestion) mainly takes place in the liver. This digestion occurs at a cellular level. Alcohol can be metabolised in three different ways, and each result in acetaldehyde, and corresponding isoenzymes. Acetaldehyde is toxic, and is involved in alcoholic liver disease and alcohol related cancers. [2]

What can alcohol cause in my liver?

Alcohol consumption is associated with increasing the risk of liver disease.

Fatty liver

When large amounts of alcohol are consumed there can be a build-up of fat in the liver. This fatty build-up occurs after a one-off (single) drinking session or regular drinking at harmful levels. [1]


Alcohol hepatitis occurs from regular and ongoing alcohol consumption. It is caused by inflammatory changes within the liver, and can result in abdominal pain, fever, deep jaundice and coma. If regular alcohol consumption continues it can lead to alcohol cirrhosis. [1]


Cirrhosis affects the structure and function of the liver. [1] Cirrhosis is a complication caused by years of consistent alcohol use. Alcohol is the most common cause of cirrhosis of the liver, and cirrhosis is the most common cause of illness and death from long term harmful alcohol consumption. [2,4] Alcoholic hepatitis can lead to alcohol cirrhosis. [1]


Acetaldehyde is a toxic substance produced by the liver when it breaks down alcohol. Acetaldehyde is a carcinogen and can cause cancer. [2]

Click here for more information on alcohol and cancer.


The facts and figures

In 2012-13, 139 residents of the ACT were admitted to hospital for alcoholic liver disease including alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. [4]

In 2012, the total number of liver cirrhosis (alcohol-related) and alcoholic liver disease related deaths were 27. [5]

In order to remain at low risk of alcohol-caused liver disease, health experts recommend having no more than two standard drinks on any day.


[1] Duggan, A.E., & Duggan, J.M. (2011). Alcoholic liver disease Assessment and management. Australian Family Physican. 40(8):590 – 593

[2] Heather, N., Peters, T.J., & Stockwell, T. (Editors). (2001). International Handbook of Alcohol Dependence and Problems. Wiley: West Sussex

[3] National Health and Medical Research Council. (2001). Australian alcohol guidelines: health risks and benefits. Available at:

[4] Admissions to hospital related to alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver. Admitted Patient Care dataset. Population Health Informatics, ACT Government: Canberra

[5] Death of ACT residents between 2006 and 2012, numbers and percent of all deaths. Cause of Death Unit Record File unpublished data. Population Health Informatics. ACT Government: Canberra