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Study shows spike in liver transplant list due to drinking trends during COVID-19 pandemic

Researchers at the University of Michigan found the liver transplant waitlist for alcoholic hepatitis increased by 60% during the COVID-19 pandemic.

AUSTIN, Texas — It's no secret the pandemic has led to a lot of problems. Several studies suggest  Americans started drinking more as a result of COVID-19.

This spike might be the reason the liver transplant list is at an all-time high.

Alcohol causes more damage than any of us might notice. Many don't notice or ignore the signs because "alcohol really makes us feel good," according to Scott Winder, a clinical psychiatrist at the University of Michigan.

This "feel-good" effect led to the boom in sales. Meaning, people drank more than usual and many struggled to stop. 

"The injury to the liver is silent," added Winder. "So, many people don't really understand how dangerous, how much their drinking is as they're drinking."

Researcher Jessica Mellinger said a recent study found there was a 60% increase during the coronavirus pandemic in the number of patients who got on the liver transplant waitlist for alcoholic hepatitis. 

"We're really seeing a lot more patients coming in with this very advanced alcoholic hepatitis kind of advanced alcohol-related liver disease," Mellinger said. 

It's a disease that causes liver inflammation by drinking alcohol – one that can take only weeks to develop if not drinking excessively. 

"What typically happens with that is someone is drinking usually really heavily," added Mellinger. "You know, we're talking like five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 drinks a day or more."

The coronavirus pandemic made these habits hard to change because everything closed down. 

"The lack of access and a sudden kind of stop to a lot of sobriety and recovery programs," Mellinger added. 

This contributes to why there was also a 50% increase in the number of people who received a transplant for alcoholic hepatitis. 

Winder told KVUE the first step for change is acceptance. 

"People will be like, 'Oh, I just have one to two drinks,' but actually they're having four to five," Winder said. "So, you put all that together, plus the pandemic. It's not surprising how many people's livers got sick."

For anyone who needs help the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a national helpline, any one can call 24/7 at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.

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