Hepatic abscess

A.Prof Frank Gaillard et al.

Hepatic abscesses, like abscesses elsewhere, are localised collections of necrotic inflammatory tissue caused by bacterial, parasitic or fungal agents. 

The frequency of individual infective agents as causes of liver abscesses are intimately linked to the demographics of the affected population. 

In developing countries, parasitic abscesses are most common 2.

In developed countries, liver abscesses are rare in healthy individuals, with imported infections from visits overseas accounting for the majority of cases.

The typical presentation is one of right upper quadrant pain, fever and jaundice. Anorexia, malaise and weight loss are also frequently seen. Depending on the immune status of the patient, and the organism involved, the presentation may be dramatic or insidious.

Parasitic abscess in patients from developing countries include:

In developed countries, bacterial abscesses are most common, usually in the setting of co-morbidity such as:

  • infection elsewhere (most common)
    • abdominal sepsis most common 1
    • necrotising enterocolitis (portal venous drainage)
  • immunocompromised 
    • diabetes mellitus found in up to 15% of patients with hepatic abscess 1
    • HIV/AIDS
    • elderly
    • chemotherapy/transplant recipients
    • malignancy
  • IVDU
  • trauma
  • ERCP 3
  • cryptogenic: 15% 1

Most abscesses in this setting are polymicrobial, with the most common bacterial agents being 1:

  • gram-negative aerobic and anaerobic organisms
    • Escherichia coli
    • Klebsiella pneumoniae
    • Bacteroides
  • gram positive
    • anaerobic and microaerophilic streptococci
    • enterococci

As a general rule, bacterial and fungal abscesses are often multiple, whereas amoebic abscesses are more frequently single. Amoebic abscesses are more common in a sub-diaphragmatic location and are more likely to spread through the diaphragm and into the chest. 

When the infection spreads to the liver through the portal veins it arises more commonly in the right lobe, probably due to an unequal distribution of superior and inferior mesenteric vein contents within the portal venous distribution.

A plain abdominal radiograph is not sensitive for evaluating liver abscesses. Indirect signs visible include:

  • gas within the abscess or biliary tree (pneumobilia) or beneath the diaphragm
  • right sided pleural effusion

Liver abscesses are typically poorly demarcated with a variable appearance, ranging from predominantly hypoechoic (with some internal echoes) to hyperechoic. Gas bubbles may also be seen 7. Colour Doppler will demonstrate the absence of central perfusion.

Contrast-enhanced ultrasound shows wall enhancement during arterial phase and progressive washout during portal or late phases. The liquefied necrotic area does not enhance. The use of contrast allows one to characterise the lesion, to measure the size of the necrotic area, and to depict internal septations for management purposes. In small abscesses (under 3 cm) and in highly septated abscesses, drainage is not recommended.

In patients with monomicrobial K. pneumoniae abscesses, the lesion may appear solid and mimic a hepatic tumour 6.

As with other modalities, the appearance of liver abscesses on CT is variable. In general, they appear as peripherally enhancing, centrally hypoattenuating lesions 8. Occasionally they appear solid or contain gas (which is seen in ~20% of cases 14). The gas may be in form of bubbles or air-fluid levels 11. Segmental, wedge-shaped or circumferential perfusion abnormalities, with early enhancement, may be seen 8, 11

The "double target sign" is a characteristic imaging feature of hepatic abscess demonstrated on contrast-enhanced CT scans, in which a central low attenuation lesion (fluid filled) is surrounded by a high attenuation inner rim and a low attenuation outer ring 10,11. The inner ring (abscess membrane) demonstrates early contrast enhancement which persists on delayed images, in contrast to the outer rim (oedema of the liver parenchyma) which only enhances on delayed phase 11

The "cluster sign" is a feature of pyogenic hepatic abscesses 12. It is an aggregation of multiple low attenuation liver lesions in a localised area to form a solitary larger abscess cavity. 

Signal characteristics include:

  • T1
    • usually hypointense centrally
    • heterogeneous
    • may be slightly hyperintense in fungal abscess
  • T2
    • tends to have hyperintense signal
    • perilesional oedema manifests as high signal intensity on T2-weighted images and can be identified in 35% of liver abscesses 13
  • T1+C (Gd)
    • enhancement of the capsule, although this may be absent in immunocompromised patients 5
    • multiple septations may be visible
  • DWI: tends to have high signal within the abscess cavity 9
  • ADC: tends to have low signal within the abscess cavity 9

Medical antimicrobial therapy is required in all cases and sometimes suffices if abscesses are small.

Radiology has a major role to play in the percutaneous drainage of hepatic abscesses, which can be performed either under ultrasound or CT guidance.

Surgery is limited to those patients where percutaneous drainage is impossible or has proven ineffective. Additionally, the source of the abscess may require surgical treatment at which time the abscess may also be drained.

Prognosis is highly variable, depending not only the organism involved and size of the abscess but also the co-morbidities present. Figures range from 9-80% 3.

General imaging differential considerations include:

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Article information

rID: 1942
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Pyogenic liver abscess
  • Liver abscess
  • Hepatic abscesses
  • Liver abscesses

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Cases and figures

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    Case 1: with "double target" and "cluster" signs
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    Case 2: echinococcal abscess - hydatid cystyst
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    Case 3: pyogenic bacterial
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    Case 4: pyogenic
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    Case 5: with rupture
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    Case 6: with rupture into pleural space
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    Liver abscess  ru...
    Case 7: with rupture into pleural space
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    Case 8: with rupture
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    Case 9: amoebic abscess
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    Case 10: subcapsular
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    Case 11: rupture into subcutaneous plane
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    Case 12: pyogenic
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    Case 13: amoebic
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    Case 14: contrast enhanced ultrasound
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    Case 14
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    Case 15
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    Case 16
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    Case 17
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