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Hepatic encephalopathy

  • Alternative Names

    Hepatic coma; Encephalopathy - hepatic


    Hepatic encephalopathy may become a medical emergency. Hospitalization is required.

    The first step is to identify and treat any factors that may have caused hepatic encephalopathy.

    Gastrointestinal bleeding must be stopped. The intestines must be emptied of blood. Infections, kidney failure, and electrolyte abnormalities (especially potassium) need to be treated.

    Life support may be necessary to help with breathing or blood circulation, particularly if the person is in a coma. The brain may swell, which can be life-threatening.

    Patients with severe, repeated cases of encephalopathy may be told to reduce protein in the diet to lower ammonia production. However, dietary counseling is important, because too little protein in the diet may cause malnutrition. Critically ill patients may need specially formulated intravenous or tube feedings.

    Lactulose may be given to prevent intestinal bacteria from creating ammonia, and as a laxative to remove blood from the intestines. Neomycin may also be used to reduce ammonia production by intestinal bacteria. Rifaximin, a new antibiotic, is also effective in hepatic encephalopathy.

    Sedatives, tranquilizers, and any other medications that are broken down by the liver should be avoided if possible. Medications containing ammonium (including certain antacids) should also be avoided. Other medications and treatments may be recommended. They may have varying results.

    Support Groups

    Expectations (prognosis)

    Acute hepatic encephalopathy may be treatable. Chronic forms of the disorder often keep getting worse or continue to come back.

    Both forms may result in irreversible coma and death. Approximately 80% (8 out of 10 patients) die if they go into a coma. Recovery and the risk of the condition returning vary from patient to patient.

    • Brain herniation
    • Brain swelling
    • Increased risk of:
      • Cardiovascular collapse
      • Kidney failure
      • Respiratory failure
      • Sepsis
    • Permanent nervous system damage (to movement, sensation, or mental state)
    • Progressive, irreversible coma
    • Side effects of medications

    Calling your health care provider

    Call your health care provider if any change in mental state or other nervous system problem occurs, particularly if there is a known or suspected liver disorder. Hepatic encephalopathy can rapidly get worse and become an emergency condition.