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Experts are seeing a more pronounced spike in alcohol-related liver disease cases among young women during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Landree Sarata was 31 years old when she was diagnosed with end-stage liver failure after drinking almost daily for the past decade.
"I never expected the diagnosis I got," Sarata, now 37, of Quincy, Massachusetts, told "Good Morning America." "I thought I just drank as much as everybody else did and had fun like everybody else."
Sarata is now on disability and unable to work. She said she started drinking daily through her job in pharmaceutical sales and never thought she drank more than others in her social circle.
She said she had "no idea" that someone her age could end up so quickly with alcohol-related liver disease, nor did she know that she may be more susceptible to medical complications from her drinking as a woman, reported GMA.
"It was just a lifestyle that just maintained until it didn't," said Sarata. "I had no idea until I was 31 and I was throwing up blood every day for almost a month straight and had to go to the hospital."
Cases of alcohol-related liver disease in young women have been on the rise for the past decade, but experts said they've been seeing a spike in cases during the pandemic.
Dr. Raymond Chung, director of hepatology and the Liver Center at Massachusetts General Medicine and president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) told GMA that his institution and others across the country are reporting 30-50% increases in the number of hospitalizations and deaths caused by alcohol-related liver disease over the past year.
He and other experts started tracking the spike after becoming concerned with what he calls the "collateral damage" of the pandemic - factors like isolation, unemployment, financial difficulties, decreased access to in-person medical and intervention support and overall added stress.
"We are seeing the downstream consequences of the pandemic," he said about the rise in alcohol-related disease diagnoses. "It's really been a substantial trickle-down effect and one that we all have to be left to contend with."
Men and women reported an increase in the frequency of their binge drinking episodes during the pandemic, according to a study released last year. The increase in frequency was defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within a couple of hours. For women, the study found that the count rose by half.
There has been a rise in cases of alcoholic hepatitis, which is inflammation of the liver caused by drinking alcohol, during the pandemic, experts said.
Alcoholic hepatitis can develop in the course of weeks and months, versus the years it may take for cirrhosis of the liver to occur, according to Dr. Jessica Mellinger, an assistant professor and hematology specialist at University of Michigan Medicine.
"This is what we're seeing a lot of in our young people and our young women," she said. "They have been, we think because of COVID and isolation and the myriad, diverse stressors that have happened as a consequence of lockdown, turning to alcohol."
"They're drinking very, very heavily and then they're getting all these same symptoms of fluid in their belly, they're jaundiced," Mellinger explained. "They're very, very sick."
Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include jaundice, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, fever, fatigue and stomach tenderness, reported GMA.
Severe alcoholic hepatitis can develop suddenly and can lead to liver failure and death, according to Mellinger.
"The folks that I'm seeing coming in are drinking really heavily," she said. "They're drinking five, six, seven or eight drinks a day. They might be finishing a pint or going through a couple bottles of wine."
"And usually they were drinking before and then it escalated," continued Mellinger. "So maybe they were having two to three glasses of wine and then added in some vodka and other things and then it escalates to this period of time where they sometimes don't even realize they were drinking that amount."
For women, a moderate alcohol intake per week is defined as seven servings of alcohol or less. For men, it is 14 servings of alcohol or less per week, according to the CDC.
One serving of alcohol is defined as five ounces for wine and just one-and-a-half ounces for hard alcohol, far less than what is typically served in bars, restaurants and people's homes, reported GMA.
Because of the different ways their bodies process alcohol, women are recommended to drink half of what men do. The way women's bodies process alcohol puts them at a greater risk for alcoholic hepatitis and other alcohol-related liver diseases.
"Women are more susceptible to alcohol," she said. "How a body reacts to alcohol is about body composition, fat to water weight ratios, where and how many of the enzymes that metabolize alcohol we have in our stomach and in our GI tracts and in our liver, and that's different for women and men."
Women may also fall prey to the false notion that wine does not affect the body the same way as other alcohol, like hard liquor, according to Mellinger.
"That's an important myth to dispel, that somehow wine is not going to cause problems," she said. "The liver doesn't distinguish the alcohol in wine versus the alcohol in Jack Daniels. It's the same."
Alcohol-Related Liver Disease on Rise Among Young Women During Pandemic
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