As the pandemic sends thousands of recovering alcoholics into relapse, hospitals across the country have reported dramatic increases in alcohol-related admissions for critical diseases such as alcoholic hepatitis and liver failure.
Alcoholism-related liver disease was a growing problem even before the pandemic, with 15 million people diagnosed with the condition around the country, and with hospitalizations doubling over the last decade.
But the pandemic has dramatically added to the toll. Although national figures are not available, admissions for alcoholic liver disease at Keck Hospital of USC were up 30% in 2020 compared with 2019, said Dr. Brian Lee, a transplant hepatologist who treats the condition in alcoholics.
Specialists at hospitals affiliated with the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Harvard University and Mount Sinai Health System in New York City said rates of admissions for alcoholic liver disease have leapt by up to 50% since March.
High levels of alcohol ingestion lead to a constellation of liver diseases due to toxic byproducts associated with the metabolism of ethanol. In the short term, these byproducts can trigger extensive inflammation that leads to hepatitis. In the long term, they can lead to the accumulation of fatty tissue, as well as the scarring characteristic of cirrhosis — which can, in turn, cause liver cancer.
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