Mortality is high in patients with fulminant hepatic failure (FHF). Neurologic complications of encephalopathy and cerebral edema are major contributors to mortality. Orthotopic liver transplantation has improved survival in these patients. However, the complexity of medical and surgical problems in this patient population, coupled with a severe shortage of organs, requires careful patient selection. The aim of this study was to describe the neurologic outcome of children with FHF who developed radiologically apparent cerebral edema. The hospital and outpatient records and radiologic studies of 20 children with FHF admitted to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh from 1981-1995 who developed encephalopathy and computed tomographic evidence of cerebral edema were reviewed. Fourteen patients died (70%), three were left with severe neurologic deficits (15%), and three were left with moderate deficits (15%). Survival was correlated with a lesser degree of coma. Histopathologic examination of eight brains demonstrated cerebral edema and widespread ischemic neuronal necrosis in all eight. The presence of radiographic cerebral edema in children with FHF is an objective measure that indicates a very poor prognosis. Termination of care is a reasonable option. Comprehensive monitoring of cerebral function and intracranial pressure is required in children with FHF. Orthotopic liver transplantation should be performed in children with severe and worsening encephalopathy before the development of radiographically apparent cerebral edema.