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Addiction and Substance Abuse

Effect of alcohol on liver, heart, and lungs

02/09/2007

Question:

My brother has been a heavy drinker for 30 years. He now has fluid in the right lung, which they have inserted a drainage tube that will remain for 3 weeks. They say his liver is bad and if he doesn`t quit drinking he will die. I know alcohol reduces blood flow to the heart, so is the liver the main cause for the fluid or could there be some other heart related issue? If he quits drinking, will the lungs stop filling?

Any info you can give is greatly appreciated.

Answer:

The fact is that alcohol in excessive amounts is toxic to every organ in the body. Most people are aware of the liver problems, but alcohol can also kill the muscles in the heart and cause a disease called cardiomyopathy, which means the heart muscle fibers are dead. This leads to congestive heart failure which leads to fluid back up in the lungs causing shortness of breath.

Also I believe there is always an equal amount of brain damage when the liver is damaged, and patients can become confused and even demented. Unfortunately, as the disease progresses to the late stage your brother is in, patients often don't understand that they are addicted, or they are in such heavy denial that it is difficult to treat them. Alcohol treatment involves cognitive treatment which requires memory and the ability to process information. Sometimes also with liver failure from drinking, patients develop a high level of ammonia which causes confusion and lots of toxicity itself.

Alcoholism is associated with a higher incidence of liver cancer and lung cancer as well as gastrointestinal cancers. One thing I would recommend that you do for yourself is to find Al-Anon meetings in your area to go to. They can be found on the web site for Al-Anon which is www.Al-Anon.org or the first page of the phone book. You need help too.

I hope that this helps, and I sincerely hope your brother gets help for his alcoholism and not just for its complications.

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Response by:

Edna M Jones, MD, MRO Edna M Jones, MD, MRO
Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University