Acute alcoholic hepatitis carries a high risk of mortality, yet only a minority of patients admitted to the hospital with the condition receive appropriate treatment, said the authors of an expert review.

Writing in the January 2017 issue of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Mack C. Mitchell Jr., MD, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, and Craig J. McClain, MD, of the University of Louisville (Ky.), described the challenges associated with treating acute alcoholic hepatitis and its consequences.

Acute alcohol hepatitis develops in heavy drinkers and presents with rapid onset of malaise, anorexia, tender hepatomegaly, and features of the systemic inflammatory response syndrome. Patients with alcoholic hepatitis also are at high risk of nutritional deficiency, infection, acute kidney injury, and multiorgan failure.

The two most widely used therapies are glucocorticoids – generally considered the standard of care for severe alcoholic hepatitis – and the phosphodiesterase inhibitor pentoxifylline (Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017. doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2016.08.047).

“Although in its most severe form AH has a high short-term mortality rate if untreated, in 2011, only 28% of more than 1,600 patients admitted to U.S. hospitals were treated with glucocorticoids and 17% with pentoxifylline (PTX), suggesting a lack of widespread confidence in the two most frequently used therapies for AH,” the authors wrote.

Both drugs work by addressing the underlying inflammation that plays a key role in liver injury, but the evidence for both is mixed: A 2008 Cochrane systematic review of 15 trials concluded there was no benefit from glucocorticoids, largely because of substantial variability in bias across the trials, while two meta-analyses of pentoxifylline trials concluded that there were no differences in short-term mortality between those who received it and those who did not.

Some patients are unsuitable for glucocorticoids and others may develop resistance. There is also the possibility that, while glucocorticoids may improve short-term survival, the associated increase in infection risk removes that advantage at 90 days and 1 year after diagnosis. These infections, in turn, often precede the development of acute kidney injury and multiorgan failure.

The authors, however, did suggest that the approach of very high, short-term bursts of glucocorticoids to induce “immune paralysis” – an approach taken for lupus nephritis – might be considered.

They stressed that abstinence was the cornerstone of treatment for acute alcoholic hepatitis, with studies showing that patients with alcoholic hepatitis who resume heavy drinking have significantly worse outcomes than those who don’t.

“Although abstinence is important at all stages, it is particularly important to emphasize abstinence beyond 90 days when many patients are regaining normal functioning,” Dr. Mitchell and Dr. McClain wrote.

Infection, kidney injury, and malnutrition are all significant concerns in patients with acute alcoholic hepatitis.

With respect to infection, the authors said considerable suspicion is required to pick up bacterial and fungal infections, as patients may not always have a fever and an elevated white blood cell count is an unreliable indicator. Infection also can lead to acute kidney injury.

Malnutrition is not only common in patients with alcohol hepatitis, but it has a significant negative impact on recovery. All patients should be encouraged to meet nutritional goals as early as possible, but just how to achieve this is controversial, the authors stressed.

For example, one study suggested that enteral nutrition was as good as glucocorticoids in reducing 28-day mortality, while another found enteral nutrition via nasogastric tube – in addition to glucocorticoids – was no better than glucocorticoids alone. “Whether [nasogastric] tubes should be used to provide enteral nutrition is a subject of controversy,” the authors wrote. “Normal- to high-protein diets are safe and do not increase the risk of encephalopathy in patients with AH.”

No conflicts of interest were declared.