What are the treatment options for hepatic encephalopathy (HE)?

Updated: May 18, 2020
  • Author: David C Wolf, MD, FACP, FACG, AGAF, FAASLD; Chief Editor: BS Anand, MD  more...
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The approach to a patient with hepatic encephalopathy depends upon the severity of the mental status changes and upon the certainty of the diagnosis. As an example, a patient with known cirrhosis and mild complaints of decreased concentration might be served best by an empiric trial of rifaximin or lactulose and a follow-up office visit to check its effect. However, a patient presenting to the emergency department with severe hepatic encephalopathy requires a different approach. General management recommendations include the following:

  • Exclude nonhepatic causes of altered mental function.

  • Consider checking an arterial ammonia level in the initial assessment of a hospitalized patient with cirrhosis and with impaired mental function. Ammonia levels have less use in a stable outpatient.

  • Precipitants of hepatic encephalopathy, such as hypovolemia, metabolic disturbances, gastrointestinal bleeding, infection, and constipation, should be corrected.

  • Avoid medications that depress central nervous system function, especially benzodiazepines. Patients with severe agitation and hepatic encephalopathy may receive haloperidol as a sedative. Treating patients who present with coexisting alcohol withdrawal and hepatic encephalopathy is particularly challenging. These patients may require therapy with benzodiazepines in conjunction with lactulose and other medical therapies for hepatic encephalopathy.

  • Patients with severe encephalopathy (ie, grade 3 or 4) who are at risk for aspiration should undergo prophylactic endotracheal intubation. They are optimally managed in the intensive care unit.

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