Acute cholangitis is an infection of the biliary system that typically results from obstruction. Common causes include choledocholithiasis, strictures, foreign bodies (such as biliary stents) parasitic worms (e.g. ascarids) and compression from an external structure. Obstruction allows for higher bacterial concentrations and bacterial proliferation. With biliary stasis and increases in intraductal pressure, bacteria migrate into the venous and lymphatic systems with subsequent bacteremia. The rate of gallstone development is 3-4 % annually in those >60 years old with up to a 15% overall prevalence in the US. In the US, 85% of ascending cholangitis cases are a consequence of choledocholithiasis. The gram-negative bacteria E coli, Klebsiella, Pseudomonas and Enterobacter are the most commonly identified pathogens. Anaerobes are less common.
Ascending cholangitis is classically diagnosed by the presence of Charcot’s triad – fever, right upper quadrant pain and jaundice. Though very specific, the presence of Charcot’s triad is only 26% sensitive and thus its absence does not rule out the diagnosis. All patients with suspected ascending cholangitis should undergo appropriate fluid resuscitation, be given broad spectrum antibiotics to cover the likely enteric pathogens, and closely monitored for worsening in their clinical condition.
Once initial assessment is complete and resuscitative efforts begun, imaging is often helpful in confirming the diagnosis of ascending cholangitis. After the diagnosis has been confirmed, ERCP and biliary drainage is indicated.
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