Severe sepsis in cirrhosis

Hepatology. 2009 Dec;50(6):2022-33. doi: 10.1002/hep.23264.


Sepsis is physiologically viewed as a proinflammatory and procoagulant response to invading pathogens. There are three recognized stages in the inflammatory response with progressively increased risk of end-organ failure and death: sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. Patients with cirrhosis are prone to develop sepsis, sepsis-induced organ failure, and death. There is evidence that in cirrhosis, sepsis is accompanied by a markedly imbalanced cytokine response ("cytokine storm"), which converts responses that are normally beneficial for fighting infections into excessive, damaging inflammation. Molecular mechanisms for this excessive proinflammatory response are poorly understood. In patients with cirrhosis and severe sepsis, high production of proinflammatory cytokines seems to play a role in the worsening of liver function and the development of organ/system failures such as shock, renal failure, acute lung injury or acute respiratory distress syndrome, coagulopathy, or hepatic encephalopathy. In addition, these patients may have sepsis-induced hyperglycemia, defective arginine-vasopressin secretion, adrenal insufficiency, or compartmental syndrome. In patients with cirrhosis and spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (SBP), early use of antibiotics and intravenous albumin administration decreases the risk for developing renal failure and improves survival. There are no randomized studies that have been specifically performed in patients with cirrhosis and severe sepsis to evaluate treatments that have been shown to improve outcome in patients without cirrhosis who have severe sepsis or septic shock. These treatments include recombinant human activated C protein and protective-ventilation strategy for respiratory failure. Other treatments should be evaluated in the cirrhotic population with severe sepsis including the early use of antibiotics in "non-SBP" infections, vasopressor therapy, hydrocortisone, renal-replacement therapy and liver support systems, and selective decontamination of the digestive tract or oropharynx.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Fluid Therapy
  • Hemodynamics
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / therapeutic use
  • Liver Cirrhosis / complications*
  • Liver Failure / etiology
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / etiology
  • Sepsis / etiology*
  • Sepsis / prevention & control
  • Sepsis / therapy
  • Shock, Septic / etiology


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Hydrocortisone