Acute Liver Failure

In most cases of liver failure, decrease in function occurs gradually over years. In acute liver failure, the liver rapidly loses function within days. Acute liver failure can develop suddenly in an otherwise healthy person and requires immediate medical attention.

Acute liver failure is a medical emergency that can cause complications including excessive bleeding, pressure in the brain (cerebral edema), kidney failure, infection, and death.

Causes of acute liver failure

Acute liver failure is most commonly caused by:

  • Tylenol (acetaminophen) overdose
  • Hepatitis A, B, and C viruses
  • Reactions to prescription or herbal medications
  • Toxins such as poisonous wild mushrooms
  • Autoimmune hepatitis
  • Vascular diseases such as Budd-Chiari syndrome which block the veins in the liver
  • Metabolic diseases such as Wilson’s disease
  • Cancer

Symptoms of acute liver failure

Symptoms may be difficult to detect initially because they can be present with many conditions. They may include:

  • Jaundice  (yellow skin and eyes)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • General malaise
  • Disorientation, confusion, inability to concentrate
  • Sleepiness

Acute liver failure may be diagnosed with blood tests, imaging with ultrasound, and biopsy of liver tissue.

Treatment of acute live failure


If the cause of acute failure is acetaminophen overdose or a toxin such as a poisonous mushroom, medications to reverse the toxic effects may be administered. If the cause is viral, medical care may allow the patient to heal and the liver to recover.

Complications caused by acute liver failure may be treated with medications and blood transfusion.

Liver Transplant

If the cause of liver failure can not be reversed, the only option is a liver transplant. Learn about liver transplantation here.