Ascites is the most common presentation of decompensated cirrhosis, and its development heralds a poor prognosis, with a 50% 2-year survival rate. Effective first-line therapy for ascites includes sodium restriction (2 g/d), use of diuretics, and large-volume paracentesis (LVP). Ideally, a combination of a loop-acting diuretic (eg, furosemide) and a distal-acting diuretic (eg, spironolactone) is used. LVP has the advantage of producing immediate relief from ascites and its associated symptoms. When 5 L or more ascitic fluid is removed, albumin (6 to 8 g per liter of fluid removed) should be administered intravenously to minimize hemodynamic and renal dysfunction.
The development of refractory ascites is particularly ominous, and 50% of such patients die within 6 months of its development. Liver transplantation is the only effective therapy for patients with refractory ascites associated with cirrhosis; unfortunately, this therapy is not available for many of those with refractory ascites. Other therapies that are available include LVP, peritoneovenous shunts, and transjugular intrahepatic portasystemic shunts (TIPS). LVP alleviates ascites rapidly, but ascites recurs universally, requiring repeated hospitalizations and paracenteses and decreasing patient quality of life. Peritoneovenous shunts rarely are used due to their high complication rate and tendency to become occluded. Recently, the use of TIPS has been shown to be an effective therapy for patients with refractory ascites. It is most effective when liver function is relatively well preserved. On the other hand, TIPS may hasten death in those with advanced liver failure. TIPS has not been shown to have a clear-cut beneficial effect on survival in patients with refractory ascites.
Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis is the most common complication of ascites and is associated with a worsening hyperdynamic circulation and a mortality rate of approximately 20%. Following an episode of spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, the 1-year mortality rate approaches 70%. Patients at risk should be considered for prophylaxis with an orally administered quinolone (eg, norfloxacin). Alternatives include trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole. Active spontaneous bacterial peritonitis should be treated with an intravenously administered third-generation cephalosporins (eg, cefotaxime) in most circumstances.
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