Symptoms to Diagnosis

A woman, age 35, with new-onset ascites

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4. When is drug treatment appropriate for alcoholic hepatitis?

  • Model for End-stage Liver Disease (MELD) score greater than 12
  • MELD score greater than 15
  • Maddrey Discriminant Function score greater than 25
  • Maddrey Discriminant Function score greater than 32
  • Glasgow score greater than 5
  • Glasgow score greater than 7

The best answer is a Maddrey Discriminant Function score greater than 32. A variety of scoring systems have been used to assess the severity of alcoholic hepatitis and to guide treatment, including the Maddrey Discriminant Function score, the MELD score, and the Glasgow score.11–16 They share similar laboratory values in their calculations, including prothrombin time (or INR) and total bilirubin.11–16 Typically, a Maddrey Discriminant Function score greater than 32, a Glasgow score of greater than 9, or a MELD score greater than 21 is used to determine whether pharmacologic treatment is indicated.11–16

Figure 3. Algorithm for the management of alcoholic hepatitis.

Figure 3. Algorithm for the management of alcoholic hepatitis.

The typical treatment is prednisolone or pentoxifylline.11,17–21 The Lille score is designed to help decide whether to stop corticosteroids after 1 week of administration due to lack of treatment response.22 It predicts mortality rates within 6 months; a score of 0.45 or less indicates a good prognosis, and corticosteroid therapy should continue for 28 days (Figure 3).22

Our patient’s discriminant function score is 50, her Glasgow score is 10, and her MELD score is 28; thus, she begins treatment with oral prednisolone. Her Lille score at 1 week is 0.119, indicating a good prognosis, and her corticosteroids are continued for a total of 28 days.

It should be highlighted that the most important treatment is abstinence from alcohol.11 Recent literature suggests that any benefit of prednisolone or pentoxifylline in terms of mortality rates is questionable,19–20 and there is evidence that giving both drugs simultaneously may improve mortality rates,11,21 but the evidence remains conflicting at this time.


Alcoholic hepatitis is a clinical syndrome of jaundice and liver failure, often in the setting of heavy alcohol use for decades.11,12 The incidence is unknown, but the typical age of presentation is between 40 and 50.11,12 The chief sign is a rapid onset of jaundice (< 3 months); common signs and symptoms include fever, ascites, proximal muscle loss, and an enlarged, tender liver.12 Encephalopathy may be seen in severe alcoholic hepatitis.12

Our patient is 35 years old. She has jaundice with rapid onset, as well as ascites and a tender liver.

The diagnosis of alcoholic hepatitis must take into account the patient’s history, physical examination, and laboratory findings. Until proven otherwise, the diagnosis should be presumed in the following scenario: ascites and jaundice on examination (usually with a duration < 3 months); a history of heavy alcohol use; neutrophilic leukocytosis; an AST level that is elevated but below 300 U/L; an ALT level above the normal range but below 300 U/L; an AST-ALT ratio greater than 2; a total serum bilirubin level above 5 mg/dL; and an elevated INR.11,12 Liver biopsy is the gold standard for diagnosis. Though not routinely done because of risks associated with the procedure, it may help confirm the diagnosis if it is in question.


We start our patient on oral prednisolone 40 mg daily for alcoholic hepatitis. Her symptoms and laboratory testing results including bilirubin improve. Her Lille score at 7 days indicates a good prognosis, prompting continuation of corticosteroid treatment for the full 28 days.

She is referred to an outpatient alcohol rehabilitation program and has remained sober as of the last outpatient note.

Alcoholic hepatitis is extremely difficult to diagnose, and no single blood test or imaging study confirms the diagnosis. The history, physical examination findings, and laboratory findings are crucial. If the diagnosis is still in doubt, liver biopsy may help confirm the diagnosis.

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