BACKGROUND: Chronic liver disease is becoming an increasingly frequent diagnosis for patients in the intensive care setting with such diagnoses as symptomatic ascites, spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, hepatorenal syndrome, or fulminant hepatic failure. OBJECTIVE: To review frequent diagnoses for patients with chronic liver disease admitted to the intensive care unit and discuss current concepts in management and investigational modalities. RESULTS: Patients with new-onset ascites in the intensive care setting should undergo immediate ultrasound to rule out acute thrombosis. A transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt is indicated when control of the refractory ascites or hepatic hydrothorax is required. In patients with hepatorenal syndrome, hemodialysis can be used as a bridge to liver transplantation. Otherwise, hepatorenal syndrome carries a high mortality. When hepatic encephalopathy is present, a precipitating cause should be sought and treated, if identified. Although bioartificial support systems are under active investigation, standard treatment for hepatic encephalopathy is lactulose and alteration of gut flora. Patients with fulminant hepatic failure should be stabilized and transferred to the intensive care unit of a liver transplant center and supported with appropriate airway management, close neurologic evaluation, glucose monitoring, and correction of coagulopathy when there is overt bleeding or an invasive procedure is planned. Intracranial pressure monitoring is recommended to maintain an adequate cerebral perfusion pressure of >60 mm Hg. CONCLUSION: Review of the literature demonstrates that certain critically ill patients with chronic liver disease may benefit from invasive modalities such as transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunting, hemodialysis, and in some cases, liver transplantation, which may be offered only at tertiary care centers.
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