Acute liver failure: A review for emergency physicians

Tim Montrief, Alexander Koyfman, Brit Long

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Introduction: Acute liver failure (ALF) remains a high-risk clinical presentation, and many patients require emergency department (ED) management for complications and stabilization. Objective: This narrative review provides an evidence-based summary of the current data for the emergency medicine evaluation and management of ALF. Discussion: While ALF remains a rare clinical presentation, surveillance data suggest an overall incidence between 1 and 6 cases per million people every year, accounting for 6% of liver-related deaths and 7% of orthotopic liver transplants (OLT) in the U.S. The definition of ALF includes neurologic dysfunction, an international normalized ratio ≥ 1.5, no prior evidence of liver disease, and a disease course of ≤26 weeks, and can be further divided into hyperacute, acute, and subacute presentations. There are many underlying etiologies, including acetaminophen toxicity, drug induced liver injury, and hepatitis. Emergency physicians will be faced with several complications, including encephalopathy, coagulopathy, infectious processes, renal injury, and hemodynamic instability. Critical patients should be evaluated in the resuscitation bay, and consultation with the transplant team for appropriate patients improves patient outcomes. This review provides several guiding principles for management of acute complications. Using a pathophysiological-guided approach to the management of ALF associated complications is essential to optimizing patient care. Conclusions: ALF remains a rare clinical presentation, but has significant morbidity and mortality. Physicians must rapidly diagnose these patients while evaluating for other diseases and complications. Early consultation with a transplantation center is imperative, as is identifying the underlying etiology and initiating symptomatic care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)329-337
Number of pages9
JournalAmerican Journal of Emergency Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2019


  • Acute liver failure
  • Liver function
  • Transplantation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Emergency Medicine


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