The primary source of ammonia in the blood is the intestine, where bacterial break down of urea leads to ammonia which is converted back to urea by the liver before it is excreted by the kidneys and colon. Besides hepatic dysfunction and inborn errors of metabolism, portosystemic shunts, urinary diversion, parenteral nutrition, multiple myeloma, distal renal tubular acidosis, drugs (e.g. sodium valproate), and convulsive seizures may also be associated with elevated serum ammonia levels (1).
In end-stage liver disease (ESLD), elevated serum ammonia level is neither very sensitive nor specific for the presence or the degree of hepatic encephalopathy (HE). In fact, over 2/3 of patients with ESLD without encephalopathy may have elevated serum ammonia levels (2).
In contrast, in patients with acute liver failure, an elevated serum ammonia level may be of prognostic value, with arterial ammonia levels >200 ug/dL associated with cerebral herniation in such patients (2).
In patients without suspected liver disease, measuring serum ammonia levels as part of a broader workup for mental status changes is reasonable, but just as in patients with ESLD, hyperammonia-related altered mental status should remain a diagnosis of exclusion.
- Hawkes ND, Thomas GAO, Jurewicz A, et al. Non-hepatic hyperammonaemia: an important, potentially reversible cause of encephalopathy. Postgrad Med J 2001;77:717-722.
- Elgouhari HM, O’Shea R. What is the utility of measuring the serum ammonia level in patients with altered mental status? Cleveland Clin J Med 2009;76: 252-4.