for Veterans and the Public
Alcohol and cirrhosis
Cirrhosis is severe scarring of the liver and is the end result of damage to liver cells. Cirrhosis can be caused by many things, including viral hepatitis or alcohol, or both.
How does alcohol affect cirrhosis?
Alcohol increases the damage done to the liver and speeds up the development of cirrhosis. Light drinkers or non-drinkers with hepatitis C (on average) have only moderate liver scarring, even up to 40 years after infection. Heavy drinkers--those who drink 5 or more drinks per day--develop scar tissue in their liver much more quickly. After about 25 years of hepatitis C infection, heavy drinkers show more than twice the scarring of light drinkers or non-drinkers. After 40 years of infection and heavy drinking, most heavy drinkers have developed cirrhosis.
What are the chances of getting cirrhosis?
In general, someone with hepatitis C has around a 20% chance of the fibrosis progressing all the way to development of cirrhosis. Alcohol use increases this chance severely. A heavy drinker with hepatitis C has 16 times the risk of cirrhosis that a non-drinker with hepatitis C has. Alcohol and hepatitis C both damage the liver, so together, the risk of serious liver damage (cirrhosis) is much higher than with either alone.