Q. I'm a social drinker who has several glasses of wine every evening, but I'm told I can avoid any liver damage if I drink plenty of coffee. Sounds ridiculous. What do you think?

There was a study of more than 125,000 people who drank coffee. The study, published recently, showed that one cup of coffee a day cut the risk of alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver by 20 percent. Four cups a day reduced the risk by 80 percent. It's not known yet why coffee protected livers in this study.

Even "social drinkers" can develop cirrhosis, a condition that causes irreversible damage to the liver. Whether you get cirrhosis depends upon the amount of alcohol you drink and a predisposition for the condition.

If you drink a lot of alcohol, you will hurt your liver. However, you will not necessarily get cirrhosis. You have a one-in-three chance of getting cirrhosis if you drink 8 to 16 ounces of liquor a day (or the equivalent in other alcoholic drinks) for 15 years or more.

More men than women get cirrhosis. There is a theory that more men get cirrhosis because they're heavier drinkers.

Women can't tolerate as much alcohol as men can. Studies show that a much higher percentage of women, consuming less alcohol than men, suffer from cirrhosis.

In the United States, excessive alcohol consumption is the single greatest risk factor for cirrhosis. Chronic infection with the hepatitis C virus is the second leading cause of cirrhosis.

The liver, which is located in the upper right side of the abdomen, is the largest organ in the human body. It weighs about three pounds and is--believe it or not--about the size of a football. You cannot live without a liver.

The liver is a multipurpose organ that performs hundreds of tasks. Among its functions are the digestion of fats, removal of harmful substances from blood, production of cholesterol, control of infections and the coagulation of blood.

In cirrhosis of the liver, scar tissue replaces healthy tissue; this blocks blood flow through the liver and prevents it from working efficiently.

At the onset of cirrhosis, there may be no symptoms. As the liver deteriorates, the following may occur: internal bleeding, fluid retention in the legs and feet, bruising, yellow skin and eyes, fluid in the abdomen, itchy hands and feet, dark urine, loss of appetite and weight, nausea, fatigue, and red spider veins.

Although liver damage from cirrhosis is irreversible, treatment can help prevent more damage and reduce complications. Giving up alcohol is the primary treatment. Improving nutrition is often part of treatment, too.

A doctor can diagnose cirrhosis through symptoms, a medical history, a physical exam, and tests.

Tests that are often used in diagnosis include a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or a scan using a radioactive substance that highlights the liver. A doctor might look at the liver using an instrument that is inserted into the abdomen. A liver biopsy can confirm a diagnosis.

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