Liver Pain After Drinking: First Sign Of Liver Disease

The liver has numerous functions in your body. It removes toxins from the bloodstream and helps remove old red blood cells so that waste products don’t build up in the body. It produces a variety of proteins, which are important in functions like blood clotting and carrying substances in the bloodstream.

All the blood from the digestive system passes through the liver first, so the liver can break down and balance nutrients and help remove toxins. 

Bile produced by the liver also helps to break down fats in the small intestine during digestion. Despite its heavy workload, you should never experience pain or discomfort in the liver.

If you experience liver pain after drinking alcohol, this is a sign that something is wrong, and you definitely need a medical check-up.

Unfortunately, you will only begin to experience pain and discomfort in the liver after it has experienced damage, which explains why you should seek help immediately. While you may need a diagnosis to confirm it, liver pain after drinking could be caused by alcohol-related damage.

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Warning signs of liver damage from drinking

As mentioned earlier, one of the functions of the liver is to remove toxins from the blood. Alcohol is one example of a toxin that the liver removes. In most cases, your liver will clear all the alcohol in your bloodstream without a problem. 

However, when the liver processes alcohol, this process produces other chemicals, which can cause damage to liver cells. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to liver inflammation, which causes liver damage. When this continues for a long time, this leads to scarring or cirrhosis.

Note that serious liver damage does not happen immediately. Drinking alcohol once will generally not pose a major risk to the liver. Over time, however, liver damage will start to accumulate. 

Liver damage is slow and painless in the initial stages. When you start getting a sore liver after drinking alcohol, this likely indicates that significant damage has already occurred. Here are some warning signs of liver damage from drinking.

  • Loss of appetite

  • Abdominal pain (stomach ache)

  • Diarrhea

  • Feeling sick

  • Nausea and vomiting

The early signs of liver damage from drinking are rather vague and can easily be confused with other conditions. In fact, many people dismiss them and continue drinking. If you continue to drink alcohol, liver damage progresses, leading to alcoholic liver disease. You may notice the following symptoms:

  • Weakness and muscle wasting

  • Changes in sleeping habits

  • Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)

  • Loss of hair

  • Weight loss

  • Abdominal swelling and discomfort

  • Getting intoxicated more easily (by drinking only small amounts of alcohol)

  • Increased sensitivity to caffeine and other medication

Alcoholic liver disease progresses through three stages:

  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease

  • Alcoholic hepatitis

  • Alcoholic cirrhosis

Alcoholic fatty liver disease

Also known as steatosis, fatty liver disease is the first stage of alcohol-related liver disease. This involves accumulating fat cells in the liver, inhibiting its function. Often, there are no obvious symptoms of this condition, but you may experience discomfort due to the enlargement of the liver. 

You are at a higher risk of developing fatty liver disease if you have type 2 diabetes, prediabetes, or are obese. The risk of fatty liver disease is also higher if you have high levels of fats in the blood, such as cholesterol and triglycerides. Age also increases the risk of developing fatty liver disease, although younger people can still get it if they are heavy drinkers. 

The good thing is that fatty liver disease goes away on its own when you stop drinking. However, if you continue drinking alcohol, the condition may progress to the next stage.

Alcoholic hepatitis

The second phase of alcohol-related liver disease is known as alcoholic hepatitis. This condition involves swelling or inflammation of the liver, which may lead to the destruction of the liver cells. 

Alcoholic hepatitis affects between 10 and 35% of all heavy drinkers (people who drink more than two drinks per day).¹ If you are in this group, you’re at risk for developing alcoholic hepatitis. Some symptoms of this condition include nausea, vomiting, fever, jaundice, abdominal pain, and tenderness.

Alcoholic hepatitis may impact your health for years as the condition of the liver continues to deteriorate. Luckily, the liver can heal and regenerate itself, so the damage from alcoholic hepatitis may be reversed when you stop drinking. 

Severe alcoholic hepatitis may occur immediately after binge drinking. This refers to drinking more than four to five drinks on one occasion. Severe alcoholic hepatitis can be life-threatening.

Alcoholic cirrhosis

Prolonged heavy drinking can lead to alcoholic cirrhosis. This is the most advanced stage of alcohol-related liver disease. When you develop this condition, much of the healthy tissue of your liver is replaced with scar tissue. 

About 10–20% of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic cirrhosis, usually after ten or more years of drinking. Common symptoms of alcoholic cirrhosis include:

  • Fluid accumulation in the abdomen

  • Enlarged spleen

  • Portal hypertension — high blood pressure in the liver

  • Confusion or behavioral changes

  • Swelling or bleeding of blood vessels around the esophagus (esophageal varices)

In some cases, liver damage from alcoholic cirrhosis will heal after a person quits drinking. However, medical treatment may be necessary to manage the condition. There are also cases where the liver damage is too extensive, and the liver cannot heal itself.

When left untreated, alcoholic cirrhosis can lead to life-threatening complications.

Risk factors for developing liver disease from alcohol

Every person who consumes a high amount of alcohol regularly is at risk of developing liver disease. However, you are at a higher risk of developing liver disease from alcohol if you:²

  • Are overweight or obese

  • Are a woman

  • Have diabetes or prediabetes

  • Have a pre-existing liver condition, such as hepatitis C

  • Have certain genetic variations that make it harder for your body to process alcohol

What helps liver pain after drinking?

If your liver hurts after drinking, you may have alcohol-related liver disease. However, it’s important to get a professional diagnosis from a doctor to rule out other causes. 

If the liver pain is caused by alcohol consumption, treatment depends on the stage of alcohol-related liver disease. Your physician will assess the extent of damage to your liver and recommend treatments to reduce the pain. You may be able to manage liver pain from the initial stages of alcohol-related liver disease by:

  • Abstaining from alcohol consumption

  • Drinking enough water

  • Controlling your weight

  • Controlling your blood pressure

  • Eating a healthy diet

Medication may also help to manage liver pain after drinking. However, you should not treat yourself with over-the-counter medication. Only a physician can safely prescribe medication to help you manage liver pain after drinking alcohol.

Ways to improve your liver health

If you have signs of alcohol-related liver disease, the best way to improve your liver health is to abstain from alcohol. If the disease is in its early stages, your liver may be able to completely heal the damage over time if you avoid continuing to damage it with alcohol.

The time it takes for your liver to heal depends on how damaged it is. In general, in people with alcoholic fatty liver disease, the liver will recover after just a few weeks of abstaining from alcohol. However, if the liver disease has progressed further, then it may take longer to recover, and there may be some lasting long-term damage.

After reversing the impacts of fatty liver disease, it may be possible to resume drinking alcohol at safe levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends two drinks or less per day if you are a man or one drink per day if you are a woman.³

However, you should not resume drinking if you have a problem controlling the amount of alcohol you drink. If you’ve experienced alcohol dependency (alcoholism), it’s better to stay away from alcohol completely.

Life-long abstinence from alcohol is also recommended if your drinking problem has progressed into alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis because your liver may not fully recover from these conditions. 

You can also improve your health by eating a healthy diet with as little added sugar as possible. Some research suggests a benefit from taking certain supplements, like omega-3s and vitamin E.⁴ ⁵ It’s very important to talk to your doctor before starting any supplement, especially if you have liver disease. 

Medication and liver transplants may be other options for some people with severe alcoholic hepatitis or alcoholic cirrhosis.

When to seek medical advice for liver pain?

Alcohol-related liver disease often has no obvious symptoms until significant damage has occurred in your liver. If you experience the symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease, it’s very important to seek medical attention immediately. 

Visit your doctor if you:

  • Experience pain or discomfort in your abdomen, especially on the right side

  • Have a swollen belly due to fluid build-up

  • Notice your skin is yellowing

  • Vomit or cough blood

  • Experience bleeding that is difficult to stop

The lowdown

The liver is an essential organ in your body. It performs numerous functions that are necessary for life. One of the functions of the liver is to clean your blood and get rid of toxins, such as alcohol. However, when the liver processes alcohol, certain compounds are created that can cause damage to the liver.

Because of this, drinking too much alcohol can lead to liver diseases, such as alcoholic fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and alcoholic cirrhosis. Liver pain is a warning sign that your drinking is causing liver damage. If left untreated, alcohol-related liver disease can cause life-threatening complications.

In its early stages, alcohol-related liver disease can be reversed if you quit drinking. You can also treat liver pain and other symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease by living a healthy lifestyle, including eating a balanced diet and controlling your weight. 

It is advisable to seek medical help immediately if you experience signs of liver damage from drinking.        

Frequently asked questions

Can drinking alcohol cause liver pain?

Drinking alcohol can cause liver pain if the liver has already been damaged by liver disease. If you notice pain in your upper right abdomen when you drink alcohol, this is a sign that you’ve already experienced significant liver damage.  

Should you stop drinking if your liver hurts?

Abstinence is the best treatment for liver pain from drinking. If you experience liver pain after drinking alcohol, you should stop drinking to prevent further damage to the liver. If you continue drinking despite the signs of liver damage, you’re likely to experience worsening symptoms.

How long does liver pain last?

Liver pain is caused by inflammation. If you have alcohol-related liver disease and stop drinking, this pain will likely go away within a few weeks. However, if the damage is severe, then the liver may not be able to heal completely.

What helps liver pain after drinking?

Diet, medication, and lifestyle improvement can help to manage liver pain after drinking. However, the best treatment is to quit drinking.

Will liver inflammation go away if I stop drinking?

Liver inflammation in the early stages of alcohol-related liver disease will disappear when you stop drinking.

  1. Definition, epidemiology and magnitude of alcoholic hepatitis (2011)

  2. Pathogenesis of alcoholic liver disease (2017)

  3. What is excessive alcohol use? | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

  4. Effects of omega-3 fatty acid in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: A meta-analysis (2016)

  5. Vitamin E as a treatment for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: Reality or myth? (2018)

Other sources:

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