How often is the liver affected by Covid-19?

Abnormal liver enzymes in patients with Covid-19 are common, particularly in those with severe disease.

 
Elevated levels of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) have been reported in 14-53% of patients in several case series. More severe cases appear to have a higher prevalence of AST elevation (1). As some cases also have elevated creatine kinase (CK), the relative contribution of muscles to these enzyme abnormalities is unclear (2).

 
A small study involving ICU patients with Covid-19 reported a prevalence of elevated AST of 62% compared to 25% in non-ICU patients (3). Other studies have confirmed lower incidence of AST abnormality among patients with mild or subclinical disease (4,5).

 
Although much of the published reports of liver injury in Covid-19 have revolved around AST and ALT abnormalities, gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT) may also be elevated. GGT was abnormal in 54% of patients with Covid-19 during their hospitalization with alkaline phosphatase elevation reported in ~2.0% (1, unpublished reports). Elevation of total bilirubin has also been reported occasionally (1).

 
Although the exact mechanism(s) of Covid-19-related is unclear, direct viral infection of liver cells is one possibility as viremia has been documented in some cases (1). Of interest, a related coronavirus, SARS-CoV-1 has been shown to infect liver tissue and cholangiocytes may express ACE2 receptors, a prime target for Covid-19 virus (1,6,7, unpublished reports).

 

Despite these observations, to date, viral inclusions have not been demonstrated in the liver. Other possible causes of liver injury in Covid-19 include innate immune dysregulation, cytokine storm, hypoxia and drugs (1,2).

 

Liked this post? Download the app on your smart phone and sign up below to catch future pearls right into your inbox, all for free!

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

References
1. Zhang C, Shi L, Wang FS. Liver injury in COVID-19:management and challenges. Lancet Gastroenterol Hepatol 2020; March 4. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-1253(20)30057-1
2. Bangash MN, Patel J, Parekh D. COVID-19 and the liver: little cause for concern. Lancet Gastroenterol Hepatol 2020;March 20. https://doi.org/10.1016/52468-1253(20)30084-4
3. Huang C, Wang Y, Li X, et al. Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Lancet 2020;395:497-506. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31986264/
4. Guan WJ, Ni ZY, Hu Y, et al. Clinical characteristics of 2019 novel coronavirus infection in China. N Engl J Med 2020;published online Feb 28. DOI:10.1056/NEJMoa2003032
5. Shi H, Han X, Jiang N, et al. Radiological findings from 81 patients with COVID-19 pneumonia in Wuhan, China: a descriptive study. Lancet Infect Dis 2020; published onlineFeb 24. DOI:10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30086-4 (lancet 8)
6. Chai X, Hu L, Zhang Y, et al. Specific ACE2 expression in cholangiocytes may cause liver damage after 209-nCoV infection. bioRxiv 2020;published online Feb 4. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.03.931766.
7. Xu Z, Shi L, Wang Y, et al. Pathological findings of COVID-19 associated with acute respiratory distress syndrome. Lancet Respir Med 2020; published online Feb 18. DOI:10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30076-X

 

Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University, its affiliate academic healthcare centers, or its contributors. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

 

How often is the liver affected by Covid-19?

What’s causing an isolated GGT elevation in my patient with an abnormal alkaline phosphatase on her routine admission lab?

Although serum gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase or GGT is a very sensitive test for liver disease, especially of biliary origin, it’s by no means a very specific test. Besides the liver, GGT is found in the kidneys, pancreas, prostate, heart, brain, and seminal vesicles but not in bone (1-4).

 
Obesity, alcohol consumption and drugs are common causes of GGT elevation (2). As early as 1960s, elevated GGT was reported in such seemingly disparate conditions as diabetes mellitus, congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction, nephrotic syndrome and renal neoplasm (3). Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, viral hepatitis, biliary obstruction, COPD, liver metastasis, drug-induced liver injury can all cause GGT elevation (1-4).

 
An isolated GGT does not necessarily indicate serious or progressive liver disease. That’s one reason it’s often not included in routine “liver panel” lab tests (1).

What to do when GGT is high but other liver panel tests such as ALT, AST, albumin, and bilirubin are normal? If your patient is at risk of acquired liver disease, then further workup may be necessary (eg, hepatitis B and C screening tests). Alcohol consumption should be queried. Don’t forget conditions associated with iron overload. If your patient is obese, diabetic or has elevated both lipids, an ultrasound of the liver to look for fatty liver should be considered. In the absence of risk factors, symptoms, or physical exam suggestive of liver disease, isolated GGT elevation should not require further investigation (1).

 
One good thing that may come out of finding an isolated elevated GGT is to encourage your patient to curb alcohol consumption or lose weight when indicated. But don’t rely on a normal GGT to rule out heavy alcohol consumption as it may miss 70% to 80% of cases (6)! 

 
Bonus Pearl: Did you know that GGT activity is thought to increase in alcohol use due to its role in maintaining intracellular glutathione, an anti-oxidant, at adequate levels to protect cells from oxidative stress caused by alcohol?

Liked this post? Download the app on your smart phone and sign up below to catch future pearls right into your inbox, all for free!

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

References

1. Carey WD. How should a patient with an isolated GGT elevation be evaluated? Clev Clin J Med 2000;67:315-16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10832186
2. Newsome PN, Cramb R, Davison SM, et al. Guidelines on the management of abnormal liver blood tests. Gut 2018;67:6-19. https://gut.bmj.com/content/gutjnl/67/1/6.full.pdf
3. Whitfield JB, Pounder RE, Neale G, et al. Serum gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase activity in liver disease. Gut 1972;13:702-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4404786
4. Tekin O, Uraldi C, Isik B, et al. Clinical importance of gamma glutamyltransferase in the Ankara-Pursaklar region of Turkey. Medscape General Medicine 2004;6(1):e16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1140713/
5. Van Beek JHDA, de Moor MHM, Geels LM, et al. The association of alcohol intake with gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT) levels:evidence for correlated genetic effects. Drug Alcohol Depend 2014;134:99-105. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3909645/

6. Bertholet N, Winter MR, Cheng DM, et al. How accurate are blood (or breath) tests for identifying self-reported heavy drinking among people with alcohol dependence? Alcohol and Alcoholism 2014;49:423-29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4060735/pdf/agu016.pdf

What’s causing an isolated GGT elevation in my patient with an abnormal alkaline phosphatase on her routine admission lab?

My patient with headache following a fall has a pink cerebrospinal fluid but the lab reports it xanthochromic. Isn’t xanthochromia supposed to describe yellow discoloration only?

Although xanthochromia literally means yellow color, when it comes to describing the color of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a more liberal—but perhaps misleading— definition of xanthochromia extending to other colors, such as pink and orange, is commonly found in the literature. 1-5

In the presence of red blood cells (RBCs) in the subarachnoid space, as seen in subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), 3 pigments are formed by the breakdown of hemoglobin in the CSF: oxyhemoglobin, methemoglobin, and bilirubin. Oxyhemoglobin is typically red but has also been reported to appear orange or orange-yellow with dilution.6  Methemoglobin is brown and bilirubin is yellow. Of these pigments, only bilirubin can be formed solely from in vivo conversion, while oxyhemoglobin and methemoglobin may also form after CSF has been obtained (eg, in tubes).  Due to the suboptimal reliability of visual inspection, some have argued for the routine use of spectrophotometry of the CSF instead in patients with suspected SAH.7

In our patient, the “pink xanthochromia” may be related to RBC breakdown either due to a SAH or as a result of hemolysis in the sample tubes themselves, especially if there was a delay in processing the specimen. Even if he had “true xanthochromia” with yellow discoloration of CSF, make sure to exclude other causes besides SAH, such as high CSF protein, hyperbilirubinemia, rifampin therapy, and high carotenoid intake (eg, carrots).

 

References

  1. Seehusen DA, Reeves MM, Fomin DA. Cerebrospinal fluid analysis. Am Fam Phys 2003;68:1103-8. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2003/0915/p1103.pdf
  2. Edlow JA, Bruner KS, Horowitz GL. Xanthochromia. A survey of laboratory methodology and its clinical implications. Arch Pthol Lab Med 2002;126:413-15.
  3. Lo BM, Quinn SM. Gross xanthochromia on lumbar puncture may not represent an acute subarachnoid hemorrhage. Am J Emerg Med 2009;27:621-23.
  4. Koenig M. Approach to the patient with bloody or pigmented cerebrospinal fluid. In Irani DN, ed, Cerebrospinal fluid in clinical practice. 2009. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-1-4160-2908-3.X0001-6
  5. Welch H, Hasbun R. Bacterial infections of the central nervous system. In Handbook of Clinical Neurology, 2010. https://www.sciencedirect.com/handbook/handbook-of-clinical-neurology/vol/96/suppl/C
  6. Barrows LJ, Hunter FT, Banker BQ. The nature and clinical significance of pigments in the cerebrospinal fluid. Brain 1955; 58: 59-80. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14378450
  7. Cruickshank A, Auld P, Beetham R, et al. Revised national guidelines for analysis of cerebrospinal fluid for bilirubin in suspected subarachnoid haemorrhage. Ann Clin Biochem 2008;45:238-44. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18482910

If you liked this post, sign up under MENU and catch future pearls straight into your mailbox!

My patient with headache following a fall has a pink cerebrospinal fluid but the lab reports it xanthochromic. Isn’t xanthochromia supposed to describe yellow discoloration only?