Alcohol-Related Liver Disease Severity Increased During COVID-19

Jim Kling

November 11, 2021

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol-related liver disease has increased in severity, a finding that is likely related to higher consumption of alcohol and reduced care. The difference was notable in higher Model for End-Stage Liver Disease–sodium (MELD-Na) scores, more signs of hepatic decompensation, and higher mortality rates.

Dr Lindsay Sobotka

"Alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic led to increased morbidity and mortality, specifically in patients that already had underlying liver disease. The importance of alcohol cessation, counseling, and close physician monitoring is emphasized, given continued or relapsed alcohol consumption can significantly affect quality of life, life expectancy, and liver transplantation candidacy," research team member Lindsay A. Sobotka, DO, said in an interview. Sobotka is an assistant professor of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus.

The research was presented by Ayushi Jain, MD, at the annual meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology. Jain is a resident at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Jain noted that alcohol sales have gone up during the pandemic, with monthly sales up 14%-44% between February and September 2020, compared with the same months in previous years.

Decompensation Rates Rose

The researchers analyzed data from patients with alcoholic cirrhosis or alcoholic hepatitis who were seen at the Ohio State University Medical Center between March and August 2019, and between March and August 2020.

During the pandemic, the number of hospital admissions nearly doubled among alcoholic hepatitis patients (86 to 162), but declined slightly among patients with alcoholic cirrhosis (613 to 528), possibly because of efforts to manage decompensation and avoid hospitalizations during the pandemic, according to Jain. In total, 4 of 162 patients with alcoholic hepatitis and 14 of 528 patients with alcoholic cirrhosis had COVID-19 at the time of admission.

Higher mortality rates were seen during the pandemic, although this was only significant for alcoholic cirrhosis: 14.8% versus 7% for alcoholic hepatitis (P = .06) and 13.5% versus 7.4% for alcoholic cirrhosis (P = .001).

Among those with alcoholic hepatitis, there was no significant change in median Maddrey’s Discriminant Function during the pandemic (P = .51), but the researchers noted a significant decrease in steroid use, from 27 patients to 23 (P = .001). "This may be due to a statistically significant increase in GI bleeds and renal dysfunction that we noted during the pandemic," said Jain.

Hepatic decompensation and critical care needs increased among patients admitted with alcoholic hepatitis, including hepatic encephalopathy (P = .037), gastrointestinal bleeding (P = .01), a need for increased oxygen (P = .024), vasopressor support (P = .005), and initiation of hemodialysis (P = .007). The median highest MELD-Na score during admission was also higher during the pandemic (24 vs. 23, P = .04).

Patients with alcoholic cirrhosis had greater decompensation as measured by ascites (P = .01), therapeutic paracentesis (P = .04), titration of diuretics (P = .005), acute kidney injury (P = .005), hepatorenal syndrome (P = .002), and spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (P = .04). They also had greater need for vasopressor support (9% to 14%; P = .006), were more likely to initiate hemodialysis (7% to 11%; P = .015), and had greater mortality (7% to 14%; P = .001).

In all, 212 patients reported increased alcohol intake, 161 reported little change over the past year, and 253 said they were abstinent. MELD-Na scores were highest in the increased group (27), compared with the unchanged group (24) and abstinent group (23) (P = .001).

More Robust Support Needed

"This highlights that the increase in alcohol use seems to be associated with higher rates of more severe alcoholic hepatitis, and we are going to need to all be aware of and intervene in these individuals, and try to not only make health care more accessible, but help those with alcohol use disorder to reengage in some support systems [and] harm-reduction measures, to try to reduce the number of these episodes of admissions with severe alcoholic hepatitis," said Paul Kwo, MD, who comoderated the session. Kwo is a professor of medicine at Stanford (Calif.) University.

Dr Paul Kwo

Kwo suggested that the pandemic has presented dual challenges to patients with alcohol-related liver disease. One is that hospitals have filled up because of an influx of COVID-19 cases, which makes it hard for them to compete for limited resources. The other is that lockdowns and social interruptions may have interfered with the support systems that normally help them to keep sober and maintain health care.

"The pandemic really disrupted everybody’s ecosystem substantially, and some of these individuals, as their ecosystems crumble, they don’t have other resources to engage in care, and then they present with far more advanced comorbidities than we might have seen prior to the pandemic," said Kwo.

The findings underscore at least one lesson that can be drawn from the pandemic. "We now know that we have to develop more robust systems to provide support for all of these individuals," said Kwo.

Comoderator Patricia D. Jones, MD, agreed, and expressed optimism. "We were forced develop more remote or virtual networks, so I think there are a lot of people that are taking advantage maybe of virtual [Alcoholics Anonymous], and that wasn’t something that they necessarily did [before the pandemic]. And so at least we’ve developed some parallel systems that hopefully people will benefit from," said Jones, who is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami.

She suggested that physicians should make inquiries about patients with alcohol-related liver disease and their social situations, and might consider trying to connect them to a social worker if called for. "I think that really speaking to the person about where they are would be beneficial," said Jones.

Sobotka, Jain, Kwo, and Jones have no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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