Skip to main content

Acute liver failure

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Sep 10, 2022.

Overview

Acute liver failure is loss of liver function that occurs quickly — 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 bleeding and increased 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.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of acute liver failure may include:

When to see a doctor

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.

Causes

Acute liver failure occurs when liver cells are damaged significantly and are no longer able to function. Potential causes include:

Some cases of acute liver failure have no obvious cause.

Complications

Acute liver failure often causes complications, including:

Prevention

Reduce your risk of acute liver failure by taking care of your liver.

Diagnosis

Tests and procedures used to diagnose acute liver failure include:

Treatment

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 provider 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:

Your provider will also work to control your symptoms and try to prevent complications caused by acute liver failure. Your care may include:

Future treatments

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 being explored, it's important to remember they are experimental and may not yet be available.

Among those being studied are:

Preparing for an appointment

If your provider 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.

What you can do

If you have been diagnosed with acute liver failure, here are some questions to ask your provider:

What to expect from your doctor

Your provider will ask you or your family questions to try to determine the cause of your acute liver failure, including:

© 1998-2024 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. Terms of use.