For patients with significant edema or ascites that is due to portal hypertension (SAAG >1.1 g/dL), the first-line therapy is sodium restriction to less than 2,000 mg/day. Consulting a nutritionist may be beneficial for patient education.
For patients with significant natriuresis (>78 mmol daily urine sodium excretion), dietary restriction alone can manage fluid retention. Most patients (85%–90%), however, require diuretics to increase sodium output. Single-agent spironolactone is more efficacious than single-agent furosemide, but diuresis is improved when both agents are used.4 A dosing regimen of once-daily 40 mg furosemide and 100 mg spironolactone is the recommended starting regimen to promote diuresis while maintaining normokalemia. Due to the long half-life of spironolactone, the dose can be increased every three to five days if needed for diuresis.4
Gastroesophageal variceal bleeding. Approximately 50% of patients with cirrhosis have gastroesophageal varices as a consequence of portal hypertension, with prevalence increasing in those with more severe disease.6 As many patients with cirrhosis have advanced disease at the time of diagnosis, it is recommended that patients be referred for endoscopic screening when diagnosed.6 Nonselective beta-blockers decrease the risk of bleeding in patients with known varices but should not be initiated empirically in all patients with cirrhosis given significant side effects, including worsening of ascites.
There is increasing evidence that there is a “window” period for beta-blocker use in cirrhosis with the window opening after the diagnosis of varices and the window closing at advanced stages of disease (marked by an episode of spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, refractory ascites, or hepatorenal syndrome, for example).7
Hepatic encephalopathy. Hepatic encephalopathy (HE) is another complication of portal hypertension and is seen in 10%–14% of patients at the time of cirrhosis diagnosis.8 Overt HE is estimated to occur in 30%–40% of patients with cirrhosis at some point during their disease course, and more subtle forms (minimal or covert HE) are seen in up to 80%.8 HE can cause numerous neurologic and psychiatric issues including personality changes, poor memory, sleep-wake disturbances, and alterations in consciousness.
In patients with an episode of encephalopathy, precipitating factors should be evaluated. Typical precipitants include infections, bleeding, electrolyte disorders, and constipation. Ammonia levels are frequently drawn as part of the evaluation of hepatic encephalopathy, but elevated levels do not significantly change diagnostic probabilities or add prognostic information.8 A low ammonia level, on the other hand, may be useful in lowering the probability of hepatic encephalopathy in a patient with altered mental status of unknown etiology.8
Routine primary prophylaxis of HE in all patients with cirrhosis is not currently recommended. Treatment is only recommended in patients with overt HE, with secondary prophylaxis administered following an episode due to the high risk for recurrence.
VTE prophylaxis. Although patients with cirrhosis are often presumed to be “auto-anticoagulated” due to an elevated international normalized ratio (INR), they experience thrombotic complications during hospitalization at the same rate or higher than patients with other chronic illnesses.9 Unfortunately, studies examining venous thromboembolism (VTE) prophylaxis in hospitalized patients have generally excluded cirrhotics. Therefore, risks/benefits of prophylaxis need to be considered on an individual basis, taking into account the presence of varices (if known), platelet count, and other VTE risk factors.
Drugs to avoid. As detailed above, nonselective beta-blockers should be avoided when outside the “window” period of benefit. Patients with cirrhosis should be counseled to avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) due to an increased risk of bleeding and renal dysfunction. ACE inhibitors (ACE-Is) and angiotensin-receptor blockers (ARBs) can also precipitate renal dysfunction and should generally be avoided unless strongly indicated for another diagnosis.
There is conflicting evidence with regard to whether the use of proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) in cirrhotics increases the risk of SBP.10,11 Nevertheless, it is prudent to reevaluate the need for PPIs in patients with cirrhosis to determine where a true indication exists.