Acute liver failure is loss of liver function that occurs rapidly — in days or weeks — usually in a person who has no preexisting liver disease. It's most commonly caused by a hepatitis virus or drugs, such as acetaminophen. Acute liver failure is less common than chronic liver failure, which develops more slowly.
Acute liver failure, also known as fulminant hepatic failure, can cause serious complications, including excessive bleeding and increasing pressure in the brain. It's a medical emergency that requires hospitalization.
Depending on the cause, acute liver failure can sometimes be reversed with treatment. In many situations, though, a liver transplant may be the only cure.
Signs and symptoms of acute liver failure may include:
Acute liver failure can develop quickly in an otherwise healthy person, and it is life-threatening. If you or someone you know suddenly develops a yellowing of the eyes or skin; tenderness in the upper abdomen; or any unusual changes in mental state, personality or behavior, seek medical attention right away.
Acute liver failure occurs when liver cells are damaged significantly and are no longer able to function. Potential causes include:
Acetaminophen overdose. Taking too much acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) is the most common cause of acute liver failure in the United States. Outside of the United States, acetaminophen is known as paracetamol. Acute liver failure can occur after one very large dose of acetaminophen, or after higher than recommended doses every day for several days.
If you or someone you know has taken an overdose of acetaminophen, seek medical attention as quickly as possible. Treatment may prevent liver failure. Don't wait for the signs of liver failure.
Some cases of acute liver failure have no apparent cause.
Acute liver failure often causes complications, including:
Reduce your risk of acute liver failure by taking care of your liver.
Tests and procedures used to diagnose acute liver failure include:
People with acute liver failure are often treated in the intensive care unit of a hospital in a facility that can perform a liver transplant, if necessary. Your doctor may try to treat the liver damage itself, but in many cases, treatment involves controlling complications and giving your liver time to heal.
Acute liver failure treatments may include:
Medications to reverse poisoning. Acute liver failure caused by acetaminophen overdose is treated with a medication called acetylcysteine. This medication may also help treat other causes of acute liver failure. Mushroom and other poisonings also may be treated with drugs that can reverse the effects of the toxin and may reduce liver damage.
Your doctor will also work to control signs and symptoms you're experiencing and try to prevent complications caused by acute liver failure. Your care may include:
Scientists continue to research new treatments for acute liver failure, especially those that could reduce or delay the need for a liver transplant. While several potential future treatments are in the pipeline, it's important to remember they are experimental and may not yet be available.
Among those being studied are:
If your doctor suspects you have acute liver failure, you'll likely be admitted to a hospital for treatment. Most people with acute liver failure are treated in an intensive care unit.
If you have been diagnosed with acute liver failure, here are some questions to ask the doctor:
Your doctor will ask you or your family questions to try to determine the cause of your acute liver failure. Your doctor may ask: