Signs & Symptoms of Alcoholic Liver Failure

Updated July 25, 2017

The liver is a vital organ that processes toxins and breaks down the body's fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Chronic misuse of alcohol can result in liver damage, because excess consumption of alcohol can put too much strain on the liver. When the liver becomes severely damaged, the entire organ fails. This condition can develop rapidly in a few days or weeks (known as acute liver failure) or gradually over months or years (chronic liver failure). There are a number of symptoms that signal acute or chronic liver failure from alcohol abuse.


One of the telltale signs of liver malfunction is jaundice, which is often indicated by the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. Jaundice occurs because the damaged liver can no longer break down red blood cells and process bilirubin to be excreted. The discolouration of the skin and the whites of the eyes is caused by the excessive bilirubin in the bloodstream.

Susceptibility to Bruising and Bleeding

A damaged liver cannot properly synthesise the proteins needed to help the blood clot, causing the person to bruise and bleed easily. Minor instances of bleeding, such as a small cut or scrape, may not stop on their own.

Confusion, Disorientation (Hepatic Encephalopathy)

Because of the damaged liver's inability to filter toxins in the blood, the toxins can accumulate and cause hepatic encephalopathy, which results in disorientation. If treated, these symptoms are usually reversible. If not treated, however, the problems can result in coma and eventually death.

Fluid in the Abdominal Cavity (Ascites)

Fluid can leak from the damaged liver and build up in the abdominal cavity, causing it to swell. A person who suffers from this affliction typically has a swollen stomach, causing a loss of appetite and sometimes difficulty breathing because of the pressure of the inflated abdominal cavity against the lungs.

Enlarged Spleen

Liver failure also can result in an enlarged spleen. The spleen is necessary to protect the body from infection.

Kidney Failure

The kidneys remove waste products from the body and regulate salt, water and electrolytes in the body.

Other Common Symptoms

Fatigue, nausea, weakness and general failing health are also common symptoms of liver failure. Other complications that can occur are liver cancer and the bleeding of the veins in the oesophagus. A person who experiences acute liver failure can go from being "perfectly healthy" to near death within just a few days. Chronic liver failure is usually more gradual, in which a person's health deteriorates over a longer period of time until a major fallout of health occurs, leading to hospitalisation.

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