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alcohol health alliance uk

North Easterners double risk of liver cirrhosis

Posted 26/01/11

More than a third of North Easterners are doubling their risk of liver cirrhosis by drinking too much, too often.

While more than nine in ten people across the region accept that too much alcohol is bad for the liver, far fewer understand that as little as two of pints of lager or glasses of wine daily or almost daily can double their risk of liver cirrhosis.

By upping this regular intake to three pints or glasses, drinkers could be increasing their chances tenfold.

Last week Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, launched its Drink Causes Damage You Can’t See campaign. The campaign, running until the end of February, aims to help people understand the Government’s recommended limits and the consequences of drinking at or above them on a regular basis.

The limits are 2-3 units a day for a woman and 3-4 units for a man. A woman consuming two glasses of wine a day, or a man drinking two pints of lager, would be drinking above these limits.

The campaign has been backed by North East liver specialist Dr Chris Record who has witnessed the age of his patients fall dramatically over recent years.
The Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust consultant said: “Something like 40% of the patients with advanced liver disease that we see are under the age of 40 years old.

“Although the younger patients are drinking heavily over a shorter period, the older ones have had a steady and lengthy drinking career – drinking at or above the recommended limits on a daily or almost daily basis for a number of years. It’s all about dose and duration at the end of the day. The closer you are to the recommended limits the less likely you are to have problems.”

Dr Record explained that the usual treatment for patients experiencing alcohol related liver disease was for patients to abstain from drinking which enables the body to rid itself of the toxins present in alcohol. “It’s never too late to stop the damage,” he said.

A period of abstinence worked for Jane Locke, a married mother of three whose regular social drinking meant she was consuming up to five bottles of wine a week.

A routine blood test revealed increased enzyme levels in her liver, which can be an indication that a person is drinking too much and can lead to more serious conditions such as fatty liver or cirrhosis of the liver.

After cutting out the drinking for three months, Jane’s liver had returned to good health. She now sticks to the recommended limits.

“This experience has been a real wake up call for me,” the 55-year-old Gosforth resident explained.

“Although I still enjoy a very active social life, I’ve cut down my alcohol intake considerably and now tend to intersperse any alcoholic drinks with water and no longer drink habitually at home.

“I guess what this has shown me is just how easily social drinking can get out of hand. With no obvious symptoms it’s easy to live for the moment and forget about the damage that alcohol is doing to your health over the long-term.

“I’m much more aware of the harm that drink can do to your body now. Although I found out the hard way, I’m so glad I did because I’ve had the chance to change things for the better. Now I enjoy life to the full but know my limits.”

However, in some cases, a spell off the drink is not sufficient and a life saving transplant is required. Retired supermarket buyer and senior manager Peter Ivory, from Sunderland, is one such case.
His relationship with alcohol was not dissimilar to Jane’s, he was drinking more than the recommended limits on a daily or almost daily basis for a considerable number of years.

Peter started drinking at 18 years old, when he would limit his pints to a Friday night out with the lads.

Once he started work he progressed to drinks after work most nights – what he describes as social drinking.

He got married and began drinking at home and at the homes of friends rather than going out, stocking up on the weekly shop when supermarkets started selling booze in the 1980s.

“I got into trouble due to the sheer consistency of my drinking,” he said.

“The quantities I was drinking gradually increased over the years through familiarity, which eventually turned into an addiction.”

At the age of 57 Peter was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcohol.
“My liver was at least 70% damaged by then,” he said.

“I’d been drinking regularly for 40 years and pretty heavily for the last ten of these. I’d taken early retirement and had the resources and the time on my hands. I was not a stereotypical alcoholic though. I was dressed as smartly as ever and always shaved. There was not a dirty mac in site.”

Peter was struck by the sudden nature of his illness.“There are no warnings,” he said. “I experienced no pains, had no symptoms at all. Most people don’t.”

He was rushed into A&E with stomach pains. “I was pumped full of morphine,” he recalls. “I came round after 36 hours. The doctor stood at the foot of my bed. He cut the preamble and simply said ‘if you have another drink you’ll be dead’. It took two weeks for this to sink in.

“I think all concerned were surprised that I survived the first six months. I had to have my stomach drained weekly due to fluids building up because my liver didn’t work and was no longer removing the waste products.”

During his slow and agonising recovery Peter also suffered at least six mini comas of up to 42 hours at a time, brought about because his ravaged liver wasn’t removing deadly toxins. He had to be rushed to hospital and put on a life saving saline drip.

Peter explained: “I was in such a bad way because the liver is pretty much your most important organ. If it stops functioning, it affects the entire system.”

The liver carries out more than 500 vital functions including:

After six months, Peter was placed on a transplant list and 12 months later was lucky enough to receive a transplant.

His life now revolves around a drug regime which suppresses his immune system and stops the body rejecting his liver. Because the immune system is suppressed, anything more than a head cold could be lethal, as it could transform into a viral infection.

Peter also deals with nerve damage to his feet and hands so that standing for too long is painful, brittle bones, loss of balance, hypertension and an umbilical hernia which makes any sudden movement painful.

“I’m always tired,” he admits.“Essentially I’m living a third of the life I did before the transplant. I’m still alive though.

“I wouldn’t want to go through another transplant. I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through. Anyone who continues to drink regularly and thinks ‘I’ll deal with it when it catches up with me’ forget about it, you’re fooling yourself. Do something before it’s too late. Take stock. Watch what you’re drinking and if necessary drink less. I wish I had.

“Where I’m at now is hard to take. Emotionally and psychologically it can get very heavy at times.”

Balance’s campaign is encouraging North Easterners to call 0191 261 3803 or visit www.balancenortheast.co.uk/harm to find out more about the recommended limits and the consequences of drinking at or above these limits on a daily or almost daily basis. Visitors will also be able to download a drinks diary and receive an information booklet.

Next month, Balance will be visiting leisure and shopping centres across the region, to provide advice and hand out information. Shoppers and leisure centre users will come face to face with a life sized x ray of a human body and shown the places where alcohol-related diseases such as strokes, heart attacks, dementia, as well as mouth, throat and liver cancer could strike.