What intensivists need to know about hemophagocytic syndrome: an underrecognized cause of death in adult intensive care units

J Intensive Care Med. 2012 Feb;27(1):58-64. doi: 10.1177/0885066610393462. Epub 2011 Jan 21.


Hemophagocytic syndrome, also known as hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), is a rare and frequently fatal disorder caused by an uncontrollable and ineffective systemic immune response. Patients initially present with fever, cytopenia, and hepatosplenomegaly, and subsequently develop multiorgan failure (MOF). Hemophagocytosis can be found on biopsy specimen but is not required. Acquired forms of HLH can occur in apparently healthy adults, while children present more often with an inherited form of the disease. Since HLH often presents with sepsis-like symptoms and organ dysfunction, patients are usually treated for presumed sepsis, which inevitably leads to delayed diagnosis and treatment. Intensivists need to have a low threshold for suspecting this disorder when previously healthy individuals present with a fulminant sepsis-like syndrome, which are unresponsive to conventional treatment. We present 3 patients with HLH who were admitted to our adult medical intensive care unit (MICU) over a 2-year period with fatal outcomes and emphasize the diagnostic importance of markedly elevated serum ferritin levels and the need for tissue biopsy in making an accurate diagnosis in a timely manner.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Atrial Fibrillation / complications
  • Atrial Fibrillation / diagnosis
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Critical Care / psychology*
  • Diabetes Mellitus / diagnosis
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Fatigue / complications
  • Fatigue / diagnosis
  • Female
  • Fever / complications
  • Humans
  • Hyperlipidemias / complications
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Internal Medicine / education*
  • Liver Diseases / complications
  • Liver Diseases / diagnosis
  • Lymphohistiocytosis, Hemophagocytic / etiology
  • Lymphohistiocytosis, Hemophagocytic / mortality*
  • Lymphohistiocytosis, Hemophagocytic / physiopathology
  • Lymphohistiocytosis, Hemophagocytic / therapy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Organ Failure
  • Neoplasms / complications
  • Patient Admission
  • Sarcoidosis / complications
  • Sarcoidosis / diagnosis
  • Serum