Acute liver failure (ALF) is a rare, serious condition involving the sudden collapse of liver function in patients with no prior history of liver disease. The most common cause of ALF is acetaminophen poisoning, in which a patient accidentally or intentionally overdoses on acetaminophen (Tylenol®), and the excess dose causes damage as the liver tries to process it. Other potential causes are viral infections such as hepatitis or herpes, vascular problems such as shock or heat stroke, or metabolic conditions such as Wilson’s Disease.
Symptoms of Acute Liver Failure
Typical symptoms of acute liver failure are:
- Abdominal pain
- Yellowed eyes or skin (jaundice)
- Mental confusion (hepatic encephalopathy) or mild memory loss, caused by a buildup of toxins in the brain
Diagnosing Acute Liver Failure
Because the symptoms of acute liver failure are fairly generic, a detailed and accurate medical history is a necessity. Because the patient may be confused due to hepatic encephalopathy, the diagnosing physician must often ask family members to provide information about his or her medication use, risk factors for viral hepatitis, and past medical problems.
The physician will also perform a physical exam to assess the severity of liver failure and look for clues to what may have caused it. Blood and urine tests can also provide valuable information that can lead to a diagnosis of ALF.
Treating Acute Liver Failure
ALF is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate attention. While there is no proven treatment for ALF itself, there are antidotes to specific causes of the condition. For example, if the cause is acetaminophen poisoning, the drug n-acetylcysteine may be given to counteract its effects.
Once the cause of ALF has been treated, the physician’s goal is to address any complications and help the patient’s liver to repair itself as much as possible. Many ALF patients, however, require a liver transplant; because of the severity of their conditions, patients with ALF are given highest priority on the transplant waiting list.
To find out more about the Methodist Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation, call us at 866-94-LIVER (866-945-4837) or send us an email.