Functional hyposplenism, seen in some patients with alcoholic liver disease, may contribute to the increased susceptibility to infections. As hyposplenism does not complicate non-alcohol related chronic liver disease, it is probably secondary to a toxic effect of alcohol. Over a two year period the case notes of 82 patients with alcoholic liver disease, whose splenic function had been assessed by the counting of pitted erythrocytes using differential interference microscopy, were reviewed to monitor mortality and the effects of hyposplenism. Thirteen patients (seven with hyposplenism) had serial measurements of pitted erythrocyte count made to assess the effect of abstinence from alcohol on splenic function. Thirty one of the 82 alcoholic patients had pitted erythrocyte counts greater than 2%. Eighteen of 82 (16%) patients died over the two years and 11 of these had been unable to stop drinking. Only one patient died of sepsis. Five patients (6%) had pitted erythrocyte counts comparable with those in splenectomised patients. In 12 of 13 patients who had abstained from alcohol for two months, the pitted erythrocyte count fell from a median of 3 to 1.3% (mean: 8.1 to 2.6%. p = 0.01). The pitted red cell count in two patients increased. One had abstained, the other had continued to drink heavily. Short term mortality in alcoholics is high, particularly if they continue to drink heavily. Only a few of these deaths are secondary to infection. Splenic function, as assessed by these methods, improves in most patients with abstinence, suggesting that the functional hyposplenism may be a result of a direct toxic effect of alcohol on the spleen.
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