From the Journals

Two-pronged approach needed in alcohol-associated hepatitis



Patients with severe alcohol-associated hepatitis (AH) need treatment for both their liver disease and their underlying alcohol use disorder (AUD), concludes a review discussing care for patients recently hospitalized.

“Probably the biggest thing I would want providers to take away from the review is to remember that these patients are likely to carry a dual diagnosis,” said lead author Akshay Shetty, MD, Pfleger Liver Institute, UCLA Medical Center.

“It is important to address the liver disease, because it probably carries the biggest mortality and morbidity risk in the short term, but we have to remember to treat their alcohol use disorder simultaneously,” Dr. Shetty said.

The guidance by Dr. Shetty and coauthors was published online in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology.

More alcohol misuse means more liver disease

AH is a “unique, severe form of alcohol-associated steatohepatitis that is seen in the background of recent heavy alcohol use,” the team writes. Patients with severe AH have faced mortality rates as high as 20%-50%. A recent study reported a drop in 30-day mortality rates to 17%, which the authors credit to improved supportive medical management.

Alcohol misuse has surged over the past two decades, which experts believe will lead to a rise in alcohol-related liver disease, including AH hospitalization, the authors note. Rates of high-risk drinking in the United States (four or more drinks daily for women, five or more for men) increased by almost 30% between 2002 and 2012, particularly among women and ethnic minorities.

At the same time, rates of AUD rose 25% among young adults. In 2019, a U.S. survey found 14.5 million people aged 12 years and older in the United States carried an AUD diagnosis.

Meanwhile, the U.S. National Inpatient Sample revealed a 28.3% rise in AH-related hospitalizations between 2007 and 2014.

“AH patients carry a high short-term mortality [and] require close outpatient monitoring and significant care coordination,” write the authors. Despite the rising rates of severe AH, there is a lack of standardized guidance on post-discharge management, which motivated their clinical care review.

Liver disease shapes short-term outcomes

The management of patients with a recent episode of severe AH requires a two-pronged approach and shared patient management between gastroenterologists/hepatologists and addiction specialists. The multidisciplinary management both improves outcomes and is linked to reduced health care costs, the authors write.

While abstinence from alcohol remains essential to recovery, the authors note, it is the “severity of hepatic decompensation that has been shown to dictate short-term mortality in the initial 6 months” following discharge.

The team created an outpatient algorithm that divides patient care into two main areas: hepatic decompensation and AUD.

For the risk of hepatic decompensation, patients should undergo close monitoring for infections and frequent laboratory tests in the months following discharge.

Moreover, the “majority of patients with severe AH usually have background cirrhosis and are at risk of portal hypertensive decompensations similar to cirrhosis,” the authors write, and so patients should be assessed for hepatic encephalopathy, as well as for ascites and variceal bleeding.

For HE, the authors recommend a low threshold for treatment initiation with lactulose (a colonic acidifier) and the antibiotic rifaximin, but they suggest that ascites management “should be conservative ... with strict adherence to a low-sodium diet as the first-line approach.”

A key problem among severe AH patients post-discharge is malnutrition, which reaches 100% prevalence and is associated with the severity of liver disease, including decompensation and mortality, they note.

Patients with malnutrition are at risk of entering a catabolic starvation state. The authors recommend avoiding long fasting periods with multiple small meals and late evening snacks.

Long-term, severe AH patients should be assessed for advanced fibrosis, although early diagnosis is often challenging, as the clinical and laboratory results typically mimic findings of liver cirrhosis, the authors write.

Crucially, patients should be considered for early referral for liver transplantation, because early liver transplantation is associated with “excellent transplant outcomes and is noninferior when compared with other etiologies of chronic liver disease,” they write.


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