Why are antibiotics routinely administered in patients with cirrhosis and upper gastrointestinal (GI) bleed?

Antibiotic prophylaxis in patients with cirrhosis and upper gastrointestinal bleed (UGIB) reduce bacterial infections, all-cause mortality, bacterial infection, mortality, rebleeding events and hospitalization.1

A 2011 Cochrane meta-analysis involving 12 trials comparing antibiotic prophylaxis to no prophylaxis or placebo found reduction in bacterial infection (RR 0.35, 95% C.I., 0.26-0.47) and overall mortality (RR 0.79, 95% C.I. 0.63-0.98). It also found a significant reduction in rebleeding and days of hospitalization, based on more limited data. Trials in this meta-analysis involved a variety of antibiotics, including norfloxacin, ciprofloxacin, cefazolin, cefotaxime, ceftriaxone and ampicillin-sulbactam. 1

So why is ceftriaxone the often-favored bacterial prophylaxis in UGIB? First, infections in cirrhotic patients often originate from bacterial translocation through the GI tract with aerobic gram-negative GI flora expected to be susceptible to ceftriaxone.2 Second, the emerging quinolone resistance among aerobic Gram-negative bacteria 2 and frequent use of ciprofloxacin for prophylaxis against spontaneous bacterial peritonitis have made use of ceftriaxone in this setting more desirable than quinolones.

Of note, a 2006 study involving patients with advanced cirrhosis (Child Pugh B or C) and GI hemorrhage receiving either norfloxacin or ceftriaxone for 7 days found a significantly lower risk of suspected or proven infections (11% vs 33%) and bacteremia or spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (2% vs 12%) in the ceftriaxone group; there was no difference in hospital mortality. 3 Although the overall prevalence of quinolone-resistant gram-negatives was unknown, 6 of 7 gram-negative bacilli isolated in the norfloxacin group were quinolone resistant.

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that 30-40% of cirrhotic patients presenting with UGIB will develop a bacterial infection within a week of their admission? 1

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  1. Chavez-Tapia NC, Barrientos-Gutierrez T, Tellez-Avila F, et al. Meta-analysis: antibiotic prophylaxis for cirrhotic patients with upper gastrointestinal bleeding-an updated Cochrane review. Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2011;34:509-518. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1365-2036.2011.04746.x
  2. Mallet M, Rudler M, Thabut D. Variceal bleeding in cirrhotic patients. Gastroenterology Reports 2017;5:185-192. https://academic.oup.com/gastro/article/5/3/185/4002779
  3. Fernandez J, del Arbo LR, Gomez C, et al. Norfloxacin vs ceftriaxone in the prophylaxis of infections in patients with advanced cirrhosis and hemorrhage. Gastroenterology 2006;131:1049-1056. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0016508506015356


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!

Why are antibiotics routinely administered in patients with cirrhosis and upper gastrointestinal (GI) bleed?

My patient with cirrhosis now has an upper gastrointestinal bleed (UGIB) with hepatic encephalopathy (HE). What’s the connection between UGIB and HE?

Hepatic encephalopathy (HE) may be precipitated by a variety of factors including infection, hypovolemia, electrolyte imbalance (eg, hyponatremia, hypokalemia), metabolic alkalosis, sedatives, and of course UGIB. 1-3

Ammonia is often considered to play a central role in the the pathogenesis of HE, particularly when associated with UGIB. The ammoniagenic potential of UGIB is primarily attributed to the presence of hemoglobin protein in the intestinal tract. One-half of the ammoniagenesis originates from amino acid metabolism (mainly glutamine) in the mucosa of the small bowel, while the other half is due to the splitting of urea by the resident bacteria in the colon (eg, Proteus spp., Enterobacteriaceae, and anerobes).1,2

A large protein load in the GI tract, as occurs in UGIB, may result in hyperammonemia in patients with cirrhosis due to the limited capacity of the liver to convert ammonia to urea through the urea cycle as well as by the shunting of blood around hepatic sinusoids. Recent studies, however, also implicate the kidneys as an important source of ammonia in this setting, further compounding HE.3

It’s important to stress that ammonia is not likely to be the only mediator of HE. Enhanced production of cytokines due to infection or other inflammatory states, neurosteroids, endogenous benzodiazepines, and other bacterial byproducts may also play an important role in precipitating HE.2,4-6  So stay tuned!

Bonus pearl: Did you know that proinflammatory cytokines tumor necrosis factor-alpha and inerleukin-6 increase ammonia permeability across central nervous system-derived endothelial cells? 7



  1. Olde Damink SWM, Jalan R, Deutz NEP, et al. The kidney plays a major role in the hyperammonemia seen after simulated or actual GI bleeding in patients with cirrhosis. Hepatology 2003;37:1277-85.
  2. Frederick RT. Current concepts in the pathophysiology and management of hepatic encephalopathy. Gastroenterol Hepatol 2011;7:222-233.
  3. Tapper EB, Jiang ZG, Patwardhan VR. Refining the ammonia hypothesis: a physiology-driven approach to the treatment of hepatic encephalopathy. Mayo Clin Proc 2015;90:646-58.
  4. Shawcross DL, Davies NA, Williams R, et al. Systemic inflammatory response exacerbates the neuropsychological effects of induced hyperammonemia in cirrhosis. J Hepatol 2004;40:247-254.
  5. Shawcross DL, Sharifi Y, Canavan JB, et al. Infection and systemic inflammation, not ammonia, are associated with grade ¾ hepatic encephalopathy, but not mortality in controls. J Hepatol 2011;54:640-49.
  6. Shawcross D, Jalan R. The pathophysiologic basis of hepatic encephalopathy: central role for ammonia and inflammation.Cell Mol Life Sci 2005;62:2295-2304.
  7. Duchini A, Govindarajan S, Santucci M, et al. Effects of tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-6 on fluid-phase permeability and ammonia diffusion in CNS-derived endothelial cells. J Investig Med 1996;44:474-82.

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My patient with cirrhosis now has an upper gastrointestinal bleed (UGIB) with hepatic encephalopathy (HE). What’s the connection between UGIB and HE?