Acute Liver Failure

What is Acute Liver Failure?

Unlike chronic liver failure that occurs over months or even years, acute liver failure (fulminant hepatic failure) happens very quickly within weeks or just days. A major portion must be damaged for failure to occur.

Emergency care is required to treat acute liver failure. However, even with immediate treatment or transplant the disease can be fatal. Death can occur within days of the first symptoms. It can be caused by cirrhosis, toxins or any liver disorder.

Causes may include

  • Viral hepatitis
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Herpes simplex virus
  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Certain prescription and non-prescription medications
  • Certain herbal supplements
  • Other toxins including inedible wild mushrooms

What are the Symptoms of Acute Liver Failure?

The symptoms of acute liver failure can appear very rapidly in seemingly healthy individuals. As the liver becomes quickly and increasingly damaged symptoms will appear.

Symptoms may include

  • Jaundice
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Upper right abdominal pain
  • Abdominal distension caused by fluid build-up
  • Generally ill feeling
  • Easy bleeding and bruising
  • Confusion

Acute Liver Failure Causes

Acute liver failure is the sudden loss of the functionality of the liver. The liver is an extremely important organ involved in metabolism and the production of important bodily substances such as bile. The liver is involved in many important roles in the human body, so it is impossible to blame just one cause for the onset of acute liver failure. Often, acute liver failure is associated with drug and alcohol abuse, but diet and other lifestyle choices can cause the abrupt failure of the liver.

Perhaps the most common cause of acute liver failure is excessive alcohol consumption. This will generally force the liver to produce a number of metabolites in response to the elevated levels of ethanol until it “crashes”. Another major cause of acute liver failure is medication overdose. Many persons who use paracetamol for pain relief find themselves taking extremely high levels. As a result of this, the liver must produce more enzymes to metabolize the painkiller. Dietary sources of acute liver failure exist as well. Many obese persons and those with high glycemic diets, or diets high in sugar, are at risk of acute liver failure.

How is Acute Liver Failure Treated?

When diagnosed with acute liver failure, the diet is restricted to avoid salt and excessive protein. The consumption of alcohol and other potentially harmful toxins must cease, and medication that rids the body of toxins may be administered.

Conditions that cause acute liver failure are treated and monitored to avoid further damage. With immediate intervention, time and proper care, the liver can heal itself if not too badly damaged. A liver transplant may be an option. However, only a small number of people are viable candidates for transplantation.

Acute Liver Failure Prevention

Acute liver failure is a rare condition thanks to the incredibly simple ways the disease can be prevented. The best means of preventing acute liver failure is not to use medications in excess that may bring about the condition. Pain relief medications with high paracetamol content should be avoided if possible. Lifestyle changes can also be adapted in order to make sure the condition does not arise. Avoiding alcohol and fatty foods can also reduce the risk of acute liver failure greatly. For some individuals, genetic screening may be necessary in order to make sure their liver is in good condition. In fact, as long as one follows basic preventive care steps, acute liver failure is unlikely to occur.

Last Reviewed:
September 11, 2016
Last Updated:
March 27, 2019