How much alcohol causes liver damage?

Usually, it takes over ten years of excessive alcohol consumption for cirrhosis to develop. Most men who develop cirrhosis will have consumed at least 3 ounces of pure alcohol per day for this period of time. The alcohol content of some drinks is higher than others, so it is important to know the alcohol content of what you are drinking.2

For example, a 12-ounce glass of beer usually contains about 0.8 ounces of pure alcohol. A 5-ounce glass of wine contains up to one ounce of alcohol. Alcohol causes fats to accumulate in the liver cells, which then gradually die away. This results in destruction of liver tissue, accompanied by an inflammatory response and gradual scar formation.2

Life expectancy is related to the stage of liver cirrhosis

Alcohol abuse can cause three kinds of liver damage. These three kinds often develop in the following order:2

  • Fatty liver (hepatic steatosis): this affects over 90% of people who drink too much alcohol.
  • Inflammation (alcoholic hepatitis): inflammation of the liver tissues occurs in around 10 -35% of people.
  • Cirrhosis: About 10 – 20% of people develop cirrhosis.

In the first stage, fatty liver (hepatic steatosis) forms, which often does not cause any noticeable symptoms. In some cases, there may be evidence of an enlarged liver.2 At this stage, you can slow down the progression of the disease with certain lifestyle changes.3

Because increased levels of fat in the liver can cause health problems, it is important here to mention obesity. Being overweight or obese may contribute to fatty liver disease. Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure can contribute to it too.3

If cirrhosis develops and your liver is unable to function well enough, you may need a liver transplant.3 Cirrhosis is a late stage of liver disease, and unfortunately only 35% of patients live for more than one year after a diagnosis of “end-stage liver cirrhosis”.4

Diagnosis and treatment of alcoholic liver disease

To diagnose liver disease, healthcare professionals can use various blood tests such as liver enzymes or clotting tests. They may also use imaging tests to assess the condition of the liver. For example, an ultrasound scan provides information about the shape and size of the organ.5

They may also determine the life-expectancy of the disease using a scoring system.4

In terms of management of alcoholic cirrhosis, abstinence from alcohol is critical. An optimized diet can also be helpful.2 Further therapies may be considered based on the symptoms and potential complications. If the cirrhosis is already very advanced, it may be that the only remaining effective treatment is a liver transplant.5

Cirrhosis is a late stage of liver disease.


  1. Cleveland Clinic. Cirrhosis of the Liver. Available at: Last accessed: October 2020
  2. Orfanidis N. MSD Manuals. Alcoholic Liver Disease. Available at: Last accessed: October 2020
  3. NHS. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Available at: Last accessed: December 2020
  4. Holland K and Murrell D. Healthline Medical Network. How Does Cirrhosis Affect Life Expectancy? Available at: Last accessed: October 2020
  5. Mayo Clinic Staff. Mayo Clinic. Cirrhosis. Available at: Last accessed: October 2020
  6. MedlinePlus Team. US National Library of Medicine. Diet – Liver Disease. Available at: Last accessed: October 2020

May 2021. GL-HEP-XIF-2000181