Chronic liver disease

The signs of chronic liver disease are described here.

Most common causes of chronic liver disease in the UK

  1. Alcohol
  2. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  3. Viral hepatitides
  4. Autoimmune (e.g. autoimmune hepatitis, primary biliary cholangitis)
  5. Metabolic (e.g. haemochromatosis)

Investigating the cause

  • Viral screen: hepatitis B surface antigen, hepatitis C IgG
  • Autoimmune liver screen: anti-smooth muscle (autoimmune hepatitis type 1), anti-mitochondrial (primary biliary cholangitis), anti-liver-kidney microsomal (autoimmune hepatitis type 2, hepatitis C/D, drug-induced hepatitis), antinuclear (autoimmune hepatitis type 1, SLE)
  • α-fetoprotein (hepatocellular carcinoma)
  • Metabolic/infiltrative: ferritin and transferrin saturation (haemochromatosis), serum copper and caeruloplasmin ± 24-hour urinary copper (Wilson’s disease), fasting glucose and lipids (fatty liver disease), α1-antitrypsin (α1-antitrypsin deficiency)
  • Immunoglobulins and protein electrophoresis (IgM raised in primary biliary cholangitis, IgA raised in alcoholic liver disease, IgG raised in autoimmune hepatitis)
  • Tissue transglutaminase antibody (Coeliac disease)
  • Abdominal ultrasound/CT
  • Liver biopsy if cause unclear 

Long-term management

  • Treat cause
  • General: optimise nutrition, alcohol abstinence
  • Monitoring
    • α-fetoprotein every 6 months (for liver function and hepatocellular carcinoma) 
    • USS every 6 months (for hepatocellular carcinoma, hepatic vein thrombus, reversed portal flow) 
    • Upper GI endoscopy every 3 years (for varices) 
  • Treat/prevent complications
    • Varices: banding, carvedilol, transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (for refractory ascites/varices/hepatic pleural effusion)
    • Ascites: spironolactone, low salt diet, fluid restriction 
    • Encephalopathy: lactulose, rifaximin 
    • Coagulopathy: vitamin K

NB: elastography may be used to non-invasively grade liver cirrhosis.

Acute complications


  • Signs: jaundice, ascites, encephalopathy
  • Causes: spontaneous bacterial peritonitis/sepsis, dehydration/AKI, upper GI bleed/constipation, others (portal vein thrombosis, drugs, liver ischaemia, hepatocellular carcinoma, alcoholic hepatitis, ischaemic liver injury)
  • Management: treat cause, lactulose ± enemas (aim 2-3 stools/day), avoid sedatives, nurse in intensive care if required

Hepatorenal failure 

  • Worsening renal function in advanced chronic liver disease with no other cause (and no response to fluids)
  • Management: fluid balance monitoring and daily weights, suspend diuretics and nephrotoxic drugs, human albumin solution (to increase effective intravascular blood volume), arterial vasoconstrictors (e.g. terlipressin)

Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis

  • Sepsis/signs of infection in patient with ascites
  • Management: diagnostic ascitic tap, IV antibiotics, human albumin solution (to prevent renal dysfunction)

NB: if there is a history of alcohol excess, prescribe Pabrinex and oxazepam/chlordiazepoxide for withdrawal.


Please list three causes of chronic liver disease

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How would you investigate a patient with decompensated liver disease?

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How would you manage a cirrhotic patient with an acute upper GI bleed?

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Try some OSCE stations

  1. Abdominal exam
  2. Chronic liver disease I
  3. Chronic liver disease II
  4. Find more here

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