Traditional markers of excessive alcohol use


Kate Conigrave
Drug Health Services
Royal Prince Alfred Hospital
Missenden Road
NSW 2050
Tel: 9515 7611
Fax: 9515 8970


Aims  The blood tests used traditionally as markers of excessive drinking are the liver enzymes, gamma glutamyltransferase (GGT), aspartate aminotransferase (AST) and alanine aminotransferase (ALT), and the red blood cell volume (mean corpuscular volume; MCV). Here we review the nature of these markers’ association with alcohol use, their practical application in detecting, assessing or monitoring drinking and increases in understanding of these markers in the past 10 years.

Design  Articles were identified via Medline search and perusal of bibliographies.

Findings  The conventional markers have imperfect sensitivity and specificity, but have an added clinical role in the detection of complications of drinking, and of comorbid conditions that may increase risk of drinking. GGT may in part be a marker of the oxidative stress associated with ethanol metabolism. Markers are more likely to be elevated in those aged more than 30 years and in regular drinkers with a longer drinking history. The markers may be useful in opportunistic case finding, in motivating patients to change drinking and in monitoring treatment response. Increased prevalence of obesity and hepatitis C must be considered in interpretation of liver enzyme results. The liver enzymes are prognostic indicators for several medical conditions and for mortality.

Conclusions  These conventional tests are widely available and relatively inexpensive. While having limited sensitivity and specificity in detection of excessive drinking, they also provide valuable data on complications of drinking, comorbid conditions that may be affected by drinking and, in some cases, prognosis.