What is Hepatopulmonary Syndrome?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Hepatopulmonary syndrome is the result of advanced liver disease.
Hepatopulmonary syndrome is the result of advanced liver disease.

Hepatopulmonary syndrome is a medical condition characterized by decreased oxygen levels in the blood and difficulty breathing, both caused by changes to the vascular system in the lungs. These changes are the result of advanced liver disease. This condition can be managed, but the only effective treatment is liver transplant. Treatment for patients with hepatopulmonary syndrome can require the services of a hepatologist, a physician who specializes in liver care, along with pulmonary specialists and surgeons. The prognosis is variable, depending on the patient's general level of health.

Hepatopulmonary syndrome limits the amount of oxygen in the blood, which may lead to shortness of breath.
Hepatopulmonary syndrome limits the amount of oxygen in the blood, which may lead to shortness of breath.

In patients with advanced liver disease, research suggests that the liver begins producing increased amounts of vasodilators, chemical compounds designed to widen the blood vessels. In the lungs, widening to the blood vessels inhibits gas exchange. This limits the amount of oxygen in the blood and can lead to shortness of breath as the patient struggles for more oxygen.

Hepatopulmonary syndrome is caused by a widening of the blood vessels which inhibits gas exchange in the lungs.
Hepatopulmonary syndrome is caused by a widening of the blood vessels which inhibits gas exchange in the lungs.

If a patient with known liver disease presents with low blood oxygen levels and shortness of breath, a physician may suspect hepatopulmonary syndrome. An echocardiogram of the heart may be recommended to check on heart function and look for signs of dilated blood vessels and a nuclear medicine scan using a radioactive contrast agent to highlight bloodflow in the lungs can also be used as a diagnostic test. The outcome of both tests can confirm hepatopulmonary syndrome in the patient.

Supplemental oxygen is often necessary for patients with hepatopulmonary syndrome.
Supplemental oxygen is often necessary for patients with hepatopulmonary syndrome.

Immediate treatment for this condition is supplemental oxygen, to help the patient get more oxygen into the blood. This condition can also be exacerbated by certain body positions and the patient may be advised to change position to address the symptoms. Sitting or standing upright can make hepatopulmonary syndrome worse. Ultimately, the goal is to replace the patient's liver. Many patients with this condition are already candidates for transplant and the development of hepatopulmonary syndrome can be a sign to push the patient up the transplant list.

Hepatopulmonary syndrome is characterized by decreased oxygen levels in the blood and difficulty breathing.
Hepatopulmonary syndrome is characterized by decreased oxygen levels in the blood and difficulty breathing.

The presence of other complications in the patient may necessitate hospitalization so the patient can be provided with a high level of care. For other patients, it may be possible to go home while waiting for news on a transplant. The patient can use supplemental oxygen comfortably at home and may feel less stressed and nervous in a home environment. While preparing for transplant, patients will also learn about the anti-rejection drugs needed to keep the new liver healthy. Information about surgical aftercare can be provided as well to help patients prepare effectively.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a InfoBloom researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a InfoBloom researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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    • Hepatopulmonary syndrome is the result of advanced liver disease.
      By: nerthuz
      Hepatopulmonary syndrome is the result of advanced liver disease.
    • Hepatopulmonary syndrome limits the amount of oxygen in the blood, which may lead to shortness of breath.
      By: Marin Conic
      Hepatopulmonary syndrome limits the amount of oxygen in the blood, which may lead to shortness of breath.
    • Hepatopulmonary syndrome is caused by a widening of the blood vessels which inhibits gas exchange in the lungs.
      By: Balint Radu
      Hepatopulmonary syndrome is caused by a widening of the blood vessels which inhibits gas exchange in the lungs.
    • Supplemental oxygen is often necessary for patients with hepatopulmonary syndrome.
      By: Leah-Anne Thompson
      Supplemental oxygen is often necessary for patients with hepatopulmonary syndrome.
    • Hepatopulmonary syndrome is characterized by decreased oxygen levels in the blood and difficulty breathing.
      By: DURIS Guillaume
      Hepatopulmonary syndrome is characterized by decreased oxygen levels in the blood and difficulty breathing.
    • People with hepatopulmonary syndrome may need to regularly monitor their oxygen saturation levels.
      By: Africa Studio
      People with hepatopulmonary syndrome may need to regularly monitor their oxygen saturation levels.