Recommendations for the diagnosis and treatment of the acute porphyrias

Ann Intern Med. 2005 Mar 15;142(6):439-50. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-142-6-200503150-00010.


The acute porphyrias, 4 inherited disorders of heme biosynthesis, cause life-threatening attacks of neurovisceral symptoms that mimic many other acute medical and psychiatric conditions. Lack of clinical recognition often delays effective treatment, and inappropriate diagnostic tests may lead to misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment. We review the clinical manifestations, pathophysiology, and genetics of the acute porphyrias and provide recommendations for diagnosis and treatment on the basis of reviews of the literature and clinical experience. An acute porphyria should be considered in many patients with unexplained abdominal pain or other characteristic symptoms. The diagnosis can be rapidly confirmed by demonstration of a markedly increased urinary porphobilinogen level by using a single-void urine specimen. This specimen should also be saved for quantitative measurement of porphobilinogen, 5-aminolevulinic acid, and total porphyrin levels. Intravenous hemin therapy, started as soon as possible, is the most effective treatment. Intravenous glucose alone is appropriate only for mild attacks (mild pain, no paresis or hyponatremia) or until hemin is available. Precipitating factors should be eliminated, and appropriate supportive and symptomatic therapy should be initiated. Prompt diagnosis and treatment greatly improve prognosis and may prevent development of severe or chronic neuropathic symptoms. We recommend identification of at-risk relatives through enzymatic or gene studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Early Diagnosis
  • Hemin / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Porphyria, Acute Intermittent / diagnosis*
  • Porphyria, Acute Intermittent / etiology
  • Porphyria, Acute Intermittent / prevention & control
  • Porphyria, Acute Intermittent / therapy*
  • Prognosis


  • Hemin