Acute Liver Failure
What is acute liver failure?
Acute liver failure is a rare condition. It happens when your liver suddenly begins
to lose its ability to function. This often happens right after an overdose of medicine
or poisoning. Chronic liver failure happens over a long stretch of time.
What causes acute liver failure?
Acute liver failure can be caused by hepatitis. It can also be caused by taking medicines
such as acetaminophen. Autoimmune disease and Wilson’s disease can also cause acute
liver failure. In some cases, the cause for the disease is unknown.
Who is at risk for acute liver failure?
Taking too much acetaminophen causes most cases of acute liver failure. Acetaminophen
is a painkiller found in many over-the-counter and prescription medicines. There are
also other things that can lead to acute liver failure. Diseases such as hepatitis
and Wilson’s disease, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, and herpes simplex virus
also increase your risk for acute liver failure.
What are the symptoms of acute liver failure?
If you have acute liver failure, you may have symptoms such as:
- Discomfort on your right side, just below your ribs
- Loss of appetite
As the disease gets worse, however, you may also become confused and extremely sleepy.
Other symptoms include bruising or bleeding easily, vomiting blood, and a buildup
of fluid in your abdomen.
How is acute liver failure diagnosed?
Liver failure is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. Your
healthcare provider will probably do an evaluation to find out if you have a history
of drug use, exposure to toxins, and to check for signs of hepatitis. These signs
include jaundice, fatigue, and abdominal pain. Your healthcare provider will also
test your mental alertness. He or she may also do blood tests. These tests will check
your liver enzymes, bilirubin levels, and prothrombin time. Prothrombin time measures
your blood’s ability to thicken (coagulate).
How is acute liver failure treated?
Treatment for acute liver failure depends on the underlying cause. If your healthcare
provider thinks you took too much acetaminophen within the past several hours, you
will probably be given activated charcoal. Taking this will help your body reduce
how much medicine is absorbed in your gastrointestinal tract. N-acetylcysteine is
another drug that can help with an acetaminophen overdose. You can take this medicine
either by mouth or through your vein. N-acetylcysteine is also sometimes helpful to
people with acute liver failure that was not caused by too much acetaminophen.
If viral hepatitis is the cause of your acute liver failure, your healthcare provider may
give you a medicine depending on the type of viral hepatitis that is causing the failure. If
autoimmune hepatitis is causing your liver failure, your healthcare provider can treat
you with steroids.
If your healthcare provider can’t find the cause of your acute liver failure, you
may need a liver biopsy. This will give more information and help determine your course
If treatment can’t get your liver working again, you may need a liver transplant.
Good candidates for transplant are strong enough for surgery. They don’t have underlying
cardiovascular disease, severe infection, or other diseases, like AIDS. However, people
with controlled HIV can get a liver transplant. If you are approved for a liver transplant,
your name will be put on a waiting list to get a donated organ. People with the most
urgent need are placed at the top of the list.
While you are waiting for a liver to become available, you may be able to have some
therapies to keep you alive. However, the effectiveness of these treatments is unclear.
What are the complications of acute liver failure?
If you have acute liver failure, common complications include bacterial and fungal
infection and low blood sugar. Swelling of the brain is another side effect of acute
liver failure. It is also one of the most serious. Confusion, abdominal swelling,
and abnormal bleeding are also common.
Can acute liver failure be prevented?
You can prevent some of the underlying causes of acute liver failure. To avoid acetaminophen
overdose, always follow the directions on the label when taking a drug that contains
acetaminophen. Talk with your pharmacist or healthcare provider if you have any questions.
You can reduce your risk of getting viral hepatitis by avoiding contact with the blood
or feces of an infected person. If you visit other countries, particularly developing
nations, you should avoid the local tap water. Vaccines are available to prevent hepatitis
A and B.
When should I call my health care provider?
Acute liver failure can happen in as little as 48 hours. It’s important to seek medical
treatment at the first signs of trouble. These signs may include fatigue, nausea,
diarrhea, and discomfort in your right side, just below your ribs.
Key points about acute liver failure
- Acute liver failure happens when your liver suddenly begins to lose its ability to
- An overdose of acetaminophen is the most common cause of acute liver failure
- Acute liver failure causes fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, discomfort on your right
side, just below your ribs, and diarrhea
- Acute liver failure is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention
- If medical treatments are not effective, you may be a candidate for a liver transplant
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your healthcare
provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your healthcare provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also
know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that
- Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions.