New ‘traffic light’ blood test gives warning signal to unsafe drinkers

If your doctor told you that your blood test showed that your alcohol consumption was damaging your liver and that there was a significant risk that this would kill you in the next five years, I’m guessing that you might feel pretty motivated to drink less. I know I would.

Deaths from liver damage have doubled in the last twenty years, most from alcohol-related disease that has risen alongside increasing alcohol intake, though obesity is also a major risk factor. Liver damage can develop without the person being aware that there’s a problem until it’s too late.

Doctors in Southampton have now devised a test that could be used in GP surgeries, to reveal hidden damage and alert people to the need to change their habits. The Southampton Traffic Light (STL) is a simple blood test that gives a colour-coded warning, with green meaning liver damage is unlikely, amber a 50-50 chance that there is damage and red signalling that the liver is probably damaged and possibly irreversibly. It combines a routine liver test that’s already in use with two others that measure scarring.

The test, which the doctors tried on 1038 clinic patients with suspected liver disease, has also been shown to be good at predicting death and complications from liver disease. In the cohort of patients used to validate the test, those with a red STL had very poor survival and a high rate of complications. The green STL group had a high survival rate and almost no liver complications, and the amber group had a slightly reduced survival and lower rate of complications.

The researchers note that the test score was developed in a clinic population with high risk of liver damage and so it may not perform so well in a different population, such as patients attending GP surgeries, but say that it could be useful in helping doctors decide about further tests or referral and in recommending lifestyle changes.

The NHS Choices website has an online self-assessment tool, which you can use to help assess your drinking and get advice on cutting down or seeking help.

The full text of the STL research paper is available from the link below.


Sheron N, MD, Moore M, Ansett S, Parsons C, Bateman A. Developing a ‘traffic light’ test with potential for rational early diagnosis of liver fibrosis and cirrhosis in the community. The British Journal of General Practice. 2012. Volume 62, Issue 602, pages e616-e624.


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Sarah Chapman

My name is Sarah Chapman. I have worked on systematic reviews and other types of research in many areas of health for the past 17 years, for the Cochrane Collaboration and for several UK higher education institutions including the University of Oxford and the Royal College of Nursing Institute. I also have a background in nursing and in the study of the History of Medicine.

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