Secondary hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis and severe sepsis/ systemic inflammatory response syndrome/multiorgan dysfunction syndrome/macrophage activation syndrome share common intermediate phenotypes on a spectrum of inflammation

Pediatr Crit Care Med. 2009 May;10(3):387-92. doi: 10.1097/PCC.0b013e3181a1ae08.


In an effort to attain earlier diagnoses in children with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), the International Histiocyte Society has now broadened their diagnostic criteria to no longer differentiate primary (HLH) and secondary hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (SHLH). Five of the following eight diagnostic criteria needed to be met: 1) fever, 2) cytopenia of two lines, 3) hypertriglyceridemia and/or hypofibrinogenemia, 4) hyperferritinemia (>500 microg/L), 5) hemophagocytosis, 6) elevated soluble interleukin-2 receptor (CD25), 7) decreased natural killer-cell activity, and 8) splenomegaly can also commonly be found in patients with sepsis, systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS), multiorgan dysfunction syndrome (MODS), and macrophage activation syndrome (MAS). Nevertheless, the therapeutic options for these are radically different. Chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant have been used for treatment of HLH/SHLH, whereas antibiotics and supportive treatment are used in severe sepsis/SIRS and MODS. MAS is treated with limited immune suppression. Outcomes are also different, SHLH has a mortality rate around 50%, whereas pediatric septic shock and MODS have a mortality of 10.3% and 18%, respectively, and severe sepsis in previously healthy children has a mortality rate of 2%. MAS has a mortality rate between 8% and 22%. Because SHLH and severe sepsis/SIRS/MODS/MAS share clinical and laboratory inflammatory phenotypes, we recommend extreme caution when considering applying HLH therapies to children with sepsis/SIRS/MODS/MAS. HLH therapies are clearly warranted for children with HLH; however, a quantitative functional estimate of cytotoxic lymphocyte function may be a more precise approach to define the overlap of these conditions, better identify these processes, and develop novel therapeutic protocols that may lead to improved treatments and outcomes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Lymphohistiocytosis, Hemophagocytic / complications*
  • Macrophage Activation*
  • Multiple Organ Failure / complications*
  • Phenotype
  • Sepsis / complications*
  • Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome / complications*