Acute cholangitis

Last revised by Andrew Murphy on 7 Feb 2023

Acute cholangitis, or ascending cholangitis, is a form of cholangitis and refers to acute bacterial infection of the biliary tree secondary to bile duct obstruction. It is a condition with high mortality that necessitates emergent biliary decompression. 

The classical presentation is the Charcot triad of fever, right upper quadrant abdominal pain, and jaundice, which is only seen in ~40% of patients. Patients can also present with Reynolds pentad, which is the Charcot triad (fever, pain and jaundice) plus shock and delirium (and/or lethargy) 1-3

Gram-negative enteric bacteria, most commonly Escherichia coli, are the primary pathogens 3

Acute cholangitis is seen in the setting of biliary tree obstruction 1,2:

Acute cholangitis is typically a clinical diagnosis with imaging performed to determine if there is evidence of 1,3:

A hallmark finding of ascending cholangitis on ultrasound is thickening of the walls of the bile ducts in the appropriate clinical setting 4. Ultrasound may also show biliary dilatation with calculi, with or without pus, which appears as debris material within the common bile duct. In the setting of acute cholangitis, sensitivity to detect choledocholithiasis is reduced 5,6

Inhomogeneous liver enhancement on arterial-phase CT. This is a non-specific sign and should be interpreted in the correct clinical context 2,7.

Treatment involves appropriate antibiotic therapy and biliary tree decompression (usually either via ERCP or PTC). Mortality rates are between 50-90% for severe acute cholangitis 8,9.

Various factors suggestive of poor prognosis include 5,10-12:

Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) was trained as a pathologist, but he was also a skilled practicing physician, and for many the "father of neurology", who also made important contributions to psychiatry. He also has the distinction of probably having more medical eponyms named after him than any other individual in history 13,14.

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Cases and figures

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