What is Alcohol Jaundice?

Yellowing of the eyes due to alcohol jaundice

Alcohol jaundice refers to someone having yellowing of the whites of the eyes or skin due to a buildup of excess bilirubin. Excess bilirubin is caused when the bile duct is obstructed or by liver disease, which can stem from heavy alcohol consumption or an alcohol use disorder but can occur because of other reasons as well.

What is Jaundice?

When someone’s eyes, skin, whites of the eyes, and mucous membranes turn yellow, it’s due to high bilirubin levels. We often talk about the yellow eyes alcohol can cause when used in large amounts.

  • Bilirubin is a bile pigment that’s yellow-orange.
  • Tumors, gallstones, and hepatitis can cause jaundice.
  • The liver secretes bile, and then bilirubin is formed through the breakdown of red blood cells. 
  • There are three phases of bilirubin production, and a problem can cause jaundice in any one of them.
  • Before bilirubin is produced, you might have something called unconjugated jaundice. This can occur because of the reabsorption of a large hematoma. Hematomas are clotted or partially clotted blood under your skin. 
  • Hemolytic anemia can also cause jaundice. Hemolytic anemia is when your red blood cells get destroyed and removed from your bloodstream before the end of their typical lifespan.
  • Viruses can cause jaundice during bilirubin production, as can autoimmune disorders and some medicines. Alcohol also affects the production of bilirubin during this phase.
  • After bilirubin production, jaundice can be caused by a blockage of bile ducks from gallbladder inflammation, gallstones, gallbladder cancer, or a pancreatic tumor.

Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Alcohol jaundice can occur from alcoholic liver disease. Alcoholic liver disease falls into the subtypes of fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and alcoholic cirrhosis.

  • Your liver is a large organ under the ribs on the right side of your abdomen. 
  • The liver helps your body filter waste, making the bile you need to digest food. 
  • The liver also stores sugar you use for energy and makes proteins that work in different parts of your body. For example, the liver makes proteins that help your blood clot.
  • When someone uses large amounts of alcohol, it impacts the liver because it’s the organ’s job to break down that alcohol. When you drink more than your liver can process, it leads to damage.

Fatty liver can occur in anyone who consumes a lot of alcohol. Alcoholic cirrhosis and hepatitis are linked to long-term alcohol use, often in alcoholics.

  • Symptoms of a fatty liver might include abdominal pain on the right side because of a buildup of fat in the liver cells that cause it to enlarge. 
  • Fatty liver also causes weight loss and tiredness, and weakness in some people, but there are no symptoms for other people.
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis can cause the same symptoms as fatty liver and many others. For example, it can cause portal hypertension, increasing blood flow resistance through the liver. 
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis can cause poor nutrition, an enlarged spleen, intestinal bleeding, and fluid buildup in the belly known as ascites. Kidney failure, confusion, and liver cancer such as hepatocellular carcinoma can also be symptoms.
  • Liver cirrhosis is end-stage liver disease. 

While the alcoholic liver disease doesn’t occur in everyone who drinks heavily, the chances go up the longer you drink and the more you have. The disease is most common in people between 40 and 50 years old, and men are more likely to develop the disease. 

While men have a higher prevalence rate, women can develop the condition after less alcohol exposure than men.

Alcohol affects your entire body and central nervous system. Along with the risk of liver damage, excessive alcohol use can also lead to pancreatic inflammation, cancer, and high blood pressure. Psychological disorders and alcohol dependence are common symptoms as well. 

Alcoholic Hepatitis

One of the primary reasons we talk about the yellow eyes alcohol causes is because of something called alcoholic hepatitis.

This inflammatory condition stems from heavy, frequent alcohol use leading to potentially permanent damage. 

  • When you drink alcohol, you’re processing toxic chemicals in your liver. 
  • The chemicals trigger inflammation. 
  • Inflammation destroys your liver tissue and cells. 
  • Over time, the scars in your liver replace healthy tissue, which interferes with your liver’s function.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis is one type of alcoholic liver disease occurring when you consume more alcohol than your liver can process. The symptoms often occur quickly, and the liver swells because of heavy drinking.

If you have alcohol jaundice related to alcoholic hepatitis, the goal of treating it is to help restore your liver to its normal functionality.

  • You’ll have to stop drinking, which may require you to participate in an alcohol treatment program. 
  • Some people also change their diet and other lifestyle factors to help their liver recover.
  • If your liver is scarred, that’s permanent, but the organ also often repairs some of the damage alcohol caused.
  • There’s no specific medication that treats alcoholic hepatitis.
  • Many people with alcoholic hepatitis have gallstones and are infected with hepatitis C.

Is Alcoholic Hepatitis Contagious?

People often wonder if alcoholic hepatitis is contagious because viral hepatitis A, B, and C can be. All types of hepatitis are severe inflammation of the liver. 

However, hepatitis A, B, and C are due to viral infection. Alcoholic hepatitis is only due to exposure to toxins, so it’s not contagious, unlike other types of acute hepatitis and chronic hepatitis. 

Diagnosing Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

For someone who has symptoms like alcohol jaundice or the yellow eyes alcohol can cause, it’s important to talk to your health care provider. The provider will likely do a number of tests to diagnose an alcohol-induced liver disease or liver inflammation after going over your medical history and any possible history of excessive alcohol consumption over a long period. 

  • A medical professional might start with a complete blood count and a physical exam.
  • Liver function tests are one type of blood test to determine how well your liver can do what it’s supposed to for your body. 
  • A liver biopsy might be done, which involves taking a small sample of tissue from the organ with a need or during surgery. The samples taken during a biopsy are then used to determine the type of liver disease someone has.
  • An ultrasound can use sound waves to create pictures of the liver. 
  • A CT scan is an imaging test that produces body images by combining X-rays and a computer. CT scans can show detailed images of the body.
  • An MRI could also be part of the diagnosis, which uses a computer, radiofrequency pulses, and a magnetic field to create detailed pictures of the body’s internal structures.


Alcohol Detox in Orange County

While it’s scary to think that you haveliver damage from alcohol or any health-related effects, you can always do things to help reverse at least some of the damage, but you have to stop drinking to do so. 

If you’re ready to learn about alcohol dependence treatment options, call 855-953-1345, and Opus Health can answer any questions you may have. If you don’t take steps to reduce your risk factors, it could lead to liver failure, the need for a liver transplant, or death from alcoholic-related liver disease. 

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