The clinical course of alcoholic cirrhosis, a condition with a high mortality, has not been well described. We examined prevalence, risk, chronology, and mortality associated with three complications of cirrhosis: ascites, variceal bleeding, and hepatic encephalopathy. We followed a population-based cohort of 466 Danish patients diagnosed with alcoholic cirrhosis in 1993-2005, starting from the date of hospital diagnosis and ending in August 2006. Data were extracted from medical charts during the follow-up period. Risk and mortality associated with complications were calculated using competing-risks methods. At diagnosis of alcoholic cirrhosis, 24% of patients had no complications, 55% had ascites alone, 6% had variceal bleeding alone, 4% had ascites and variceal bleeding, and 11% had hepatic encephalopathy. One-year mortality was 17% among patients with no initial complications, 20% following variceal bleeding alone, 29% following ascites alone, 49% following ascites and variceal bleeding (from the onset of the later of the two complications), and 64% following hepatic encephalopathy. Five-year mortality ranged from 58% to 85%. The risk of complications was about 25% after 1 year and 50% after 5 years for all patients without hepatic encephalopathy. The complications under study did not develop in any predictable sequence. Although patients initially without complications usually developed ascites first (12% within 1 year), many developed either variceal bleeding first (6% within 1 year) or hepatic encephalopathy first (4% within 1 year). Subsequent complications occurred in an unpredictable order among patients with ascites or variceal bleeding.
Conclusion: Patients with alcoholic cirrhosis had a high prevalence of complications at the time of cirrhosis diagnosis. The presence and type of complications at diagnosis were predictors of mortality, but not of the risk of subsequent complications.