Liver disease on the rise, women more at risk than thought

Alcohol cost Frances friends, family, and career, and nearly killed her on more than one occasion.

But it wasn’t a serious car accident, blood clots or near liver failure that stopped her from drinking.

Instead, she made the decision to quit in a quiet moment of contemplation.

“I just looked at the beer and thought, ‘What am I doing? This isn’t working,'” she said.

A year ago, the 46-year-old was one of a growing number of young women admitted to intensive care units with alcoholic hepatitis.

Her liver was also covered in scars and doctors told her she would die within months if she continued to drink.

“I kind of resigned myself to the fact that I was going to die,” she said.

What is alcoholic hepatitis?

Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by excessive drinking. Symptoms include jaundice (yellowing), nausea, fatigue and abdominal pain.

While alcoholic hepatitis has long been thought to primarily affect men, new research from Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital has found a surge in admissions for women with alcoholic hepatitis during the pandemic.

In the three years before the COVID-19 outbreak, 11 women were admitted to hospital with potentially fatal conditions. In the three years since the COVID-19 outbreak, that number has risen to 39 cases.

“In particular, it has become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic in younger women (to be diagnosed with the disease),” report author Alex Thompson said.

Dr. Thompson stood in the hospital corridor, wearing glasses and with scars on his face.

Dr Alex Thompson said young women who were underweight were at greater risk.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

Researchers also found a spike in alcoholic hepatitis when comparing hospitalizations in other parts of the state.

Dr Thompson said Victoria’s hospitalization data showed the total number of monthly cases had more than doubled, from about 23 cases per month in 2010 to about 60 cases per month in 2020, with a sharp increase after 2020.

Dr. Thompson said that because of the link between being underweight and susceptibility to alcohol abuse, underweight young women were disproportionately affected.

“If you keep up with these people, you’re at higher risk of serious damage to your liver,” Dr. Thompson said.

While the figures represent the worst end of the drinking spectrum, experts fear they reflect the extent of the drinking problem across Australia.

Women were more likely than men to increase their drinking during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, with another study finding hazardous drinking levels among middle-aged Australian women were at their highest in decades.

Dr Thompson said: “If you drink more than 10 standard drinks per week, or regularly drink more than 4 standard drinks per day, you are at risk for alcohol consumption.”

A long history of alcoholism

Francis had been drinking since he was a teenager, a problem exacerbated by anxiety and depression.

By her twenties, she was drinking in the mornings and had already tried inpatient rehab.

Frances is sitting in a toy car, smiling with a cigarette and a can of beer.

When Francis was in his twenties, he started drinking in the mornings and had already tried inpatient rehab.(supply)

At one point, she was drinking four liters of wine from a barrel a day.

Alcoholic hepatitis is usually thought of as a condition of heavy drinkers over a long period of time, but Dr. Thompson says it can be caused by “heavy drinking over several days” because everyone reacts to alcohol differently.

A disease that affects more men

Two-thirds of alcoholic hepatitis cases are in men, although studies show an increase in hospital admissions among women with the disease.

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