(CNN)The need for liver transplants because of heavy drinking soared during the pandemic, researchers reported Tuesday.
They found the number of people who got a liver transplant or were put on a waiting list due to alcoholic hepatitis was 50% higher than what was forecast based on pre-pandemic trends.
With alcoholic hepatitis, the liver stops processing alcohol and instead creates highly toxic chemicals that trigger inflammation. The inflammation can kill off healthy liver cells, creating irreversible damage to the liver that may force the patient to get a liver transplant to survive.
Alcoholic hepatitis is a condition that often develops after years of heavy drinking, but it can also develop after a short period of excess. Scientists still don't know why some people develop this condition and others don't.
For this study, University of Michigan researchers compared the actual number of new people put on the US organ transplant list from March 2020 to January 2021 with the projected numbers that were based on pre-pandemic data. They also looked at national monthly retail alcohol sales records between January 2016 and 2021.
The results published in JAMA Network Open showed a positive correlation between the increase in the number of people on the waiting list for a liver due to alcoholic hepatitis and the increase in retail sales of alcohol during the pandemic.
A survey published Monday by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that American adults had claimed that they drank about the same amount of alcohol during the pandemic, at least in the fourth quarter of 2020. Sales figures may suggest otherwise. Researchers on this study noted alcohol sales increased sharply starting in March 2020 and stayed at about the same elevated level for the rest of the year.
From March 2016 to January 2021, researchers saw 51,488 more people were put on a waiting list for a liver and 32,320 liver transplants were performed due to alcoholic hepatitis. The number of people who needed a liver transplant for any other reason outside of alcoholic hepatitis remained about the same.
"While we cannot confirm causality, this disproportionate increase in association with increasing alcohol sales may indicate a relationship with known increases in alcohol misuse during COVID-19," the researchers wrote. "This study provides evidence for an alarming increase in (alcoholic hepatitis) associated with increasing alcohol misuse during COVID-19 and highlights the need for public health interventions around excessive alcohol consumption."