Alcohol-related liver disease surges since pandemic; young women seeing biggest increase in diagnoses


AURORA, Colo. (KDVR) — Binge drinking during the pandemic has led to a sharp increase in serious liver problems, doctors say.

At UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, medical director of liver transplantation and section head of hepatology Dr. James Burton said more than half of his patients have some kind of alcohol-related liver disease.

“When the mayor shut down the city and closed down the liquor stores and everyone had a run in the liquor stores, I mean, that really showed that this was a problem,” Burton said.

Numerous studies point to an increase in alcohol use and abuse after March 2020.

“They stayed at home. They were working virtually. They weren’t leaving their houses. They started having happy hour at three in the afternoon because what else was there to do?” Burton said.

In early 2021, Burton said he started seeing more patients with alcoholic hepatitis. It is a disease brought on by heavy alcohol use and causes inflammation and severe liver disfunction, and it has a high risk of death. According to Burton, it can take less than a year of heavy drinking to develop symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis.

“Honestly, the real treatment for this is cessation from alcohol,” he said.

And while many times that method works to reverse the damage, sometimes it requires more intense treatments.

“If you do not see improvement in liver function with steroids, often times, the only treatment is a liver transplant,” Burton said.

Study shows spike in need for liver transplants

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found a “325.0% increase in patients added to the waiting list and 268.5% increase in patients receiving a liver transplant” in February 2021 compared to June 2020. The study attributes the rise in patients needing and receiving liver transplants to acute alcohol-associated hepatitis.

“The cohort study found that the number of patients awaiting and undergoing liver transplantation for acute alcohol-associated hepatitis substantially increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. This marked change is likely associated with recent patterns in high-risk alcohol use,” the study said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time doctors have seen a sudden spike in patients with alcohol-related liver disease.

“This is similar to other events that have happened: 9/11, [Hurricane] Katrina. There were increased uses of alcohol that occurred after that,” said Burton, the UCHealth doctor. “The problem here is that this was something that happened not just in a local area but the entire United States, if not the world, and we are now seeing the consequence of that.”

Women seeing greatest increase in alcohol-related liver disease

According to Burton, young women make up the demographic seeing the greatest increase in alcohol-related liver disease.

“I’ve been in this business two decades, and I used to take care of patients with alcoholic liver disease who were old men. Now, it’s young women who are in their 20s,” he said. ““I saw a girl who was 23 years old this week who has cirrhosis from alcohol.”

Burton said women are unable to consume as much alcohol as men. When a woman drinks the same amount of alcohol as a man, it affects the woman’s liver earlier than the man’s, he said.

“People think, ‘Well, I don’t drink that much but you have to consider what is a drink,” Burton said. “We live where there’s a lot of craft beers here in Colorado. You can have beers that are 8 and 10% alcohol. Well, that’s two drinks, not one.”

One drink is considered 12 ounces of 5% alcohol by volume regular beer, five ounces of wine or one ounce of spirits.

“I think we all need to take a look at how much we’re drinking and take a real assessment of this, particularly given the increased uses and complications that have occurred,” Burton said.

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