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Acute Porphyria Treatment & Management

  • Author: Richard E Frye, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Max J Coppes, MD, PhD, MBA  more...
Updated: Apr 07, 2016

Medical Care

Consider an appropriate period of first-line conservative therapy in patients with acute porphyria before administering heme for injection. The duration of conservative treatment depends on the patient's presenting condition and clinical course. Start a hematin infusion immediately if clinical deterioration is evident to prevent neuronal damage.

Conservative first-line therapy includes the following:

  • Remove potentially offending medications.
  • Administer intravenous (IV) fluid with a substantial carbohydrate supply (eg, dextrose 500 g/d).
  • Control pain with opiates.
  • Relieve nausea and vomiting with phenothiazines.

If conservative treatment proves unsatisfactory, administer an IV heme infusion for 3-14 days.

Hematin is the only heme compound currently approved for use in the United States. Heme arginate (Normosang) is a more stable heme compound and has a lower frequency of adverse effects. Although this compound has been used with success in Europe and South Africa, it has not been approved for use in the United States.[8]

Heme requires prompt administration for clinical benefit. Episodes of porphyria can cause irreversible neuronal damage. Heme therapy is intended to prevent an episode from reaching the critical stage of neuronal degeneration.

Fecal urobilinogen increases in proportion to the amount of hematin administered; this observation suggests an enterohepatic pathway as a route of elimination. Bilirubin metabolites are also excreted in the urine after hematin administration.

Urinary concentrations of porphyrins can be followed to monitor treatment efficacy. A decrease in aminolevulinic acid (ALA), uroporphyrinogen, porphobilinogen (PBG), and/or coproporphyrin values indicates successful treatment.

Strictly follow recommended dosing guidelines because asymptomatic reversible renal shutdown can occur when a greatly excessive dose of hematin is administered in a single infusion. However, recommended doses of hematin do not impair renal function.

Liver transplantation was effective in a case of severe acute intermittent porphyria (AIP). Studies of gene therapy in animal models to restore PBG activity are ongoing.

Several factors complicate the treatment of seizures in porphyria. The liver metabolizes most anticonvulsants are metabolized, at least to some extent, and most anticonvulsants induce the cytochrome P-450 enzyme system.

Acute seizure control includes the following:

  • Magnesium sulfate and diazepam are first-line drugs for acute seizure control.
  • Lorazepam is generally the first-line drug for status epilepticus and is safe to use in patients with porphyria.
  • Correct acute electrolyte abnormalities because seizures are commonly associated with such abnormalities.

Epilepsy control includes the following:

  • Gabapentin is not metabolized by the liver and is reportedly successful for long-term seizure control.
  • Diazepam per rectal is useful for outpatient control of prolonged seizures.

Correct electrolyte abnormalities. Hyponatremia can be corrected with an infusion of normal saline or half normal saline, depending on the level of volume depletion and hyponatremia. However, fluid restriction and diuretics may be needed if the patient exhibits signs of syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone secretion.

Autonomic outflow is managed by the administration of beta-blockers. Acute hypertension must be managed with appropriate emergency agents.

Psychiatric symptoms are typically controlled by administering phenothiazines (eg, chlorpromazine). These medications can also help relieve nausea.



An expert in porphyria should assist in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with acute and chronic cases, as the management of porphyria involves many disciplines. Such experts may be certified in metabolic diseases, gastroenterology, or hematology.

Consultation with a neurologist may be needed if seizures or neuropathy develop.

Consultation with a physical therapist may be needed if muscle weakness develops.

Consultation with a psychiatrist may be necessary for the management of short-term and/or long-term psychiatric issues.

Consultation with a specialist in reproductive medicine may be necessary for menses and birth control.

Consultation with a cardiologist may be needed if hypertension develops.

Consultation with an anesthesiologist is necessary before a patient is sedated for a minor procedure or surgery.[9]

Seek a consultation with an ophthalmologist if ocular manifestations arise.



A high-carbohydrate diet can mitigate the disease. A low-carbohydrate diet is strictly forbidden.

The patient should maintain adequate fluid intake to ensure good clearance of porphyrins.

A low-salt, low-fat, and low-cholesterol diet may be prudent if hypertension develops.



Instruct patients to avoid activities that put them at risk for dehydration, exhaustion, or carbohydrate depletion.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Richard E Frye, MD, PhD Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine; Director of Autism Research, Child and Behavioral Neurologist, Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute

Richard E Frye, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Academy of Pediatrics, Child Neurology Society, International Neuropsychological Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Thomas G DeLoughery, MD Professor of Medicine, Pathology, and Pediatrics, Divisions of Hematology/Oncology and Laboratory Medicine, Associate Director, Department of Transfusion Medicine, Division of Clinical Pathology, Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine

Thomas G DeLoughery, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Blood Banks, American College of Physicians, American Society of Hematology, International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis, Wilderness Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

James L Harper, MD Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Hematology/Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation, Associate Chairman for Education, Department of Pediatrics, University of Nebraska Medical Center; Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Creighton University School of Medicine; Director, Continuing Medical Education, Children's Memorial Hospital; Pediatric Director, Nebraska Regional Hemophilia Treatment Center

James L Harper, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, American Federation for Clinical Research, Council on Medical Student Education in Pediatrics, Hemophilia and Thrombosis Research Society, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for Cancer Research, American Society of Hematology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Max J Coppes, MD, PhD, MBA Executive Vice President, Chief Medical and Academic Officer, Renown Heath

Max J Coppes, MD, PhD, MBA is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Healthcare Executives, American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, Society for Pediatric Research

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Sharada A Sarnaik, MBBS Professor of Pediatrics, Wayne State University School of Medicine; Director, Sickle Cell Center, Associate Hematologist/Oncologist, Children's Hospital of Michigan

Sharada A Sarnaik, MBBS is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Hematology, American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, New York Academy of Sciences, Society for Pediatric Research, Children's Oncology Group, American Academy of Pediatrics, Midwest Society for Pediatric Research

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Heme production pathway. Heme production begins in the mitochondria, proceeds into the cytoplasm, and resumes in the mitochondria for the final steps. Figure outlines the enzymes and intermediates involved in the porphyrias. Names of enzymes are presented in the boxes; names of the intermediates, outside the boxes. Multiple arrows leading to a box demonstrate that multiple intermediates are required as substrates for the enzyme to produce 1 product.
Table 1. Known Chromosomal Location of Enzymes Involved in Porphyria and Inheritance Patterns
Type of Porphyria Deficient Enzyme Location Inheritance Pattern Band  
ALAD deficiency ALAD Cytosol Autosomal recessive 9q34  
AIP PBG deaminase Cytosol Autosomal dominant 11q23  
HCP Coproporphyrinogen oxidase Mitochondrial Autosomal dominant 3q12  
VP Protoporphyrinogen oxidase Mitochondrial Autosomal dominant 1q22-23  
Table 2. Frequencies of Porphyria
Type of Porphyria Age of Onset Incidence Male-to-Female Ratio
ALAD deficiency Mostly adolescence to young adulthood, but variable (2-63 y) 6 cases total 6:0
AIP After puberty (third decade) General 0.01/1000

Sweden 1/1000

Finland 2/1000

France 0.3/1000

HCP Predominantly adulthood (youngest patient aged 4 y) Japan 0.015/1000

Czech 0.015/1000

Israel 0.007/1000

Denmark 0.0005/1000





VP Heterozygous mutation: after puberty (fourth decade) Homozygous mutation (rare): childhood South Africa 0.34/1000 1:1
Table 3. Quantitative Urine Porphyrin Levels
Level ALAD Deficiency Acute Intermittent Porphyria (AIP) Congenital Erythropoietic Porphyria (CEP) and Porphyria Cutanea Tarda (PCT) HCP and VP
ALA Significantly increased Significantly increased Normal Significantly increased
PBG Increased Significantly increased Normal Significantly increased
Uroporphyrin Normal Increased Significantly increased Increased
Coproporphyrin Significantly increased Increased Increased Significantly increased
Table 4. Quantitative Stool Porphyrin levels
Level HCP VP
Coproporphyrin Significantly increased Increased
Protoporphyrin Increased Significantly increased
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