What does holiday binge drinking do to the liver?

Written by: Dr Phillip Harrison
Edited by: Laura Burgess

Binge drinking is easy to do without even realising you’re consuming too much booze, and certainly without taking into consideration the impact that excessive-alcohol could have on your liver. It’s easy to turn to alcohol to unwind, especially if you’re about to go into summer holiday mode.

Whether that's with a drink at the airport, glass of wine on the flight, a continued supply once settled around the pool and even a beer or two with your evening meal. We’ve asked consultant hepatologist Dr Phillip Harrison to explain just how toxic holiday drinking can be and whether it causes irreversible damage to the liver.

What defines binge drinking?

Binge drinking is the consumption of an excessive amount of alcohol within a short space of time in order to get drunk. In the UK, the units of measurement are now both the same for men and women.

It is recommended not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week, which equates to roughly either:

  • 6 pints of 4% beer or
  • 6 glasses of 13% wine or
  • 14 glasses of 40% spirits.

What’s the danger of binge drinking?

It’s not advised to “save up” the 14 units and it is best to spread them evenly across the week. Those who regularly drink 40 standard measures or more each week have a high risk of developing scarring of the liver, which is known as cirrhosis. Whilst 40 measures in a week may sound like a lot, it is much more likely to happen on holiday where drinking often starts earlier in the day.

What does binge drinking to do the liver?

It’s the amount of alcohol drunk that determines the development of liver disease as well as the pattern of drinking, which plays a role in disease progression. People who drink outside of meal times and those who binge drink have an increased risk of developing liver disease.

A weekly binge drinking session increases the risk of decompensated liver disease, particularly in those who are overweight and they are nearly seven times more likely to develop liver disease.

What are the symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease?

The symptoms can range in severity and can start off as abdominal pain, loss of appetite, fatigue, feeling sick and diarrhoea. They can progress to yellowing of the skin, swollen limbs, curved fingertips and nails, weight loss and muscle wasting.

If someone drank alcohol excessively on a two week holiday, what would happen?

Two weeks of binge drinking can be acutely toxic to the liver and contributes to developing chronic liver disease if repeated regularly. A short period of heavy drinking can cause the liver to become fatty and inflamed.

Can alcohol-related liver damage be reversed?

Yes, the changes in the liver caused by alcohol are reversible up to the point of scarring, however, it may take up to three to six months for the liver to recover. If you’re continuing the holiday booze-mode once you’re back home, it could seriously damage your health.

Ideally, people should not be drinking alcohol every day and should definitely not be binge drinking.

Do not hesitate to book an appointment with Dr Harrison here if you are concerned about the wellbeing of your liver in relation to your drinking habits.

By Dr Phillip Harrison
Hepatology (liver specialist)

Dr Phillip Harrison is an internationally recognised London-based physician and one of the UK's leading specialists in hepatology and liver diseases. He specialises in abnormal liver functions, viral hepatitis, liver transplantation and interventional endoscopy, specifically ERCP.

As chair of the NICE cirrhosis guideline development group, he is at the forefront of liver disease research and has written prolifically for numerous newspapers, as well as appearing on national television to draw public attention to the dangers of liver disease.

His practice is based at the prestigious London Liver Centre, London Bridge Hospital, where he works alongside a team of some of the country's best specialists in this field, attracting patients from all over the UK, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. 

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