Skip to Main Content

Acute fatty liver of pregnancy, a disorder limited to the gravid state, occurs in the third trimester of pregnancy and causes acute hepatic failure. With improved recognition and immediate delivery, the maternal mortality rate in contemporary reports is about 4%. The disorder is usually seen after the 35th week of gestation and is more common in primigravidas and those with twins. The incidence is about 1:10,000 deliveries.

The etiology of acute fatty liver of pregnancy is likely poor placental mitochondrial function. Many cases may be due to a homozygous fetal deficiency of long-chain acyl coenzyme A dehydrogenase (LCHAD).


Pathologic findings are unique to the disorder, with fatty engorgement of hepatocytes. Clinical onset is gradual, with nausea and vomiting being the most common presenting symptoms. Varying degrees of flu-like symptoms are also typical. Eventually, symptoms progress to those of fulminant hepatic failure: jaundice, encephalopathy, disseminated intravascular coagulation, and death. On examination, the patient shows signs of hepatic failure.

Laboratory findings include marked elevation of alkaline phosphatase but only moderate elevations of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST). Hypocholesterolemia and hypofibrinogenemia are typical, and hypoglycemia can be extreme. Coagulopathy is also frequently seen with depressed procoagulant protein production. Kidney function should be assessed for hepatorenal syndrome. The white blood cell count is elevated, and the platelet count is depressed.


The differential diagnosis is that of fulminant hepatitis. Liver aminotransferases for fulminant hepatitis are higher (greater than 1000 units/mL) than those for acute fatty liver of pregnancy (usually 500–1000 units/mL). Preeclampsia may involve the liver but typically does not cause jaundice; the elevations in liver biochemical tests in patients with preeclampsia usually do not reach the levels seen in patients with acute fatty liver of pregnancy.


Diagnosis of acute fatty liver of pregnancy mandates immediate delivery. Intensive supportive care with ICU-level observation is essential and typically includes administration of blood products and glucose as well as correction of acidemia. Vaginal delivery is preferred. Resolution of encephalopathy and laboratory derangements occurs over days with supportive care, and recovery is usually complete. Rare cases of liver transplantation have been reported.

Naoum  EE  et al. Acute fatty liver in pregnancy; pathophysiology, anesthetic implications, and obstetrical management. Anesthesiology. 2019;130:446.
[PubMed: 30707120]  
Nelson  DB  et al. Acute fatty liver of pregnancy. Clin Obstet Gynecol. 2020;63:152.
[PubMed: 31725416]  

Pop-up div Successfully Displayed

This div only appears when the trigger link is hovered over. Otherwise it is hidden from view.