Updated: Nov 20, 2016
Author: Homayoun Shojamanesh, MD; Chief Editor: Vinay Kumar Kapoor, MBBS, MS, FRCS, FAMS 



Cholangitis is an infection of the biliary tract with the potential to cause significant morbidity and mortality. Many patients with acute cholangitis respond to antibiotic therapy; however, patients with severe or toxic cholangitis may not respond and may require emergency biliary drainage. Jean M. Charcot recognized this illness in 1877 when he described a triad of fever, jaundice, and right upper quadrant pain. In 1959, Reynolds and Dargon described a more severe form of the illness that included the additional components of septic shock and mental confusion, which is referred to as the Reynolds pentad.


Historically, choledocholithiasis was the most common cause of biliary tract obstruction resulting in cholangitis. Over the past 20 years, biliary tract manipulations/interventions and stents have reportedly become more common causes of cholangitis. Hepatobiliary malignancies are a less common cause of biliary tract obstruction and subsequent bile contamination.[1]


Race-, sex-, and age-related demographics

Cholangitis is reported in all races. One variant, Asian cholangitis (also referred to as recurrent pyogenic cholangitis), is observed with increased frequency in Southeast Asia.[2]

The condition is reported in both females and males and has no clear predominance in either. 

It mostly occurs in adults, with a reported median age at onset of 50-60 years. In neonates, extrahepatic biliary atresia (EHBA) is a cause of cholangitis. In children and young adults, choledochal cyst can cause cholangitis.  


The prognosis is usually guarded, although it improves with early antibiotic treatment and appropriate drainage and decompression of biliary tract as needed. Factors reportedly associated with a poor prognosis include old age, female sex, acute renal failure, preexisting cirrhosis, and malignant biliary obstruction.


The mortality rate of acute cholangitis ranges from 5-10%, with a higher mortality rate in patients who require emergency decompression or surgery.

Cholangitis has significant potential for mortality and morbidity, especially if left untreated. Reported mortality rates have been as high as 88% for untreated cholangitis.


Complications include pyogenic liver abscess, cholangiolytic abscess (usually small and multiple) in the liver, longstanding recurrent cholangitis (eg, Asiatic cholangitis), and acute renal failure. Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) can cause secondary biliary cirrhosis (SBC).[3]




A history of choledocholithiasis or recent biliary tract manipulation associated with fever (often with chills and rigors), abdominal (right upper quadrant) pain, and jaundice (the Charcot triad) is highly suggestive of cholangitis. Fever reportedly occurs in nearly 95% of patients with cholangitis. Approximately 90% of patients have right upper quadrant tenderness, and 80% have jaundice.

According to Fujii et al, the 2007 Tokyo guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of acute cholangitis were mostly acceptable.[4] However, classification into mild or moderate grade using the guidelines could be challenging, so it was necessary for clinicians to carefully distinguish organ dysfunction associated with cholangitis itself from dysfunction associated with the underlying disease in determining the severity of the disease.[4]

Similarly, Nishino et al found that the 2013 Tokyo guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of acute cholangitis are practical, but they may underestimate some cases that necessitate urgent/early biliary drainage as mild disease.[5] The investigators developed a scoring system that took into consideration the following five predictors, which they indicate may improve identification of patients at high risk of needing urgent/early biliary drainage[5] :

  • Blood urea nitrogen level above 20 mg/dL

  • Platelet count below 120,000/μ L

  • Serum albumin level below 3.0 g/dL

  • The presence of systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS)

  • Age of 75 years or older


Physical examination may reveal fever, icterus, jaundice, and abdominal pain.


The two main causes of cholangitis are biliary tract manipulation and common bile duct stones.[6] Other possible causes of biliary tract obstruction that may lead to infection include strictures, tumors, choledochal/biliary cysts, or sump syndrome. Hepatolithiasis is also a possible cause of cholangitis[7] and is observed more frequently in East Asia. More than 90% of patients with hepatolithiasis have calcium bilirubinate stones, also referred to as brown pigment stones.



Diagnostic Considerations

Delay in diagnosis or treatment of cholangitis may result in a higher risk of death.

Consider variants such as Asian (oriental) cholangitis, primary sclerosing cholangitis, and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)-related cholangitis.

Differential Diagnoses



Laboratory Studies

Note the following:

  • Obtain complete blood cell (CBC) count, liver function tests, coagulation profile, and blood cultures.

  • Common laboratory findings include leukocytosis, hyperbilirubinemia (patients with a malignant obstruction generally have a significantly higher bilirubin level than those with a benign obstruction), and elevated alkaline phosphatase levels.

  • Other possible laboratory findings include elevation of transaminases and serum amylase levels (due to possible concurrent pancreatitis from stone impaction at the ampulla of Vater).

  • Blood culture findings are positive in nearly 50% of patients.

  • Bile culture findings are positive in nearly all patients.

  • Multiple organisms are identified in approximately 60% of patients. Commonly reported aerobic organisms include Escherichia coli and Klebsiella and Enterococcus species. The most commonly reported anaerobic organism is Bacteroides fragilis.

Imaging Studies

Imaging modalities include abdominal ultrasonography and abdominal computed tomography (CT) scanning.[8]

The diagnosis of the cause of cholangitis can be made on magnetic resonance cholangiography (MRC) as it is noninvasive and involves no exposure to radiation, but diagnostic and therapeutic (drainage of the biliary system) modalities include endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) and percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC).

MRC is preferred before ERC or PTC, as it indicates the level of the block (eg, high or low) and the patency of the biliary ductal confluence; this helps in the selection of the therapeutic procedure for drainage of the biliary system (ie, ERC for low blocks and PTC for high blocks with confluence but not patency).



Medical Care

Administration of broad-spectrum intravenous antibiotics and correction of fluid and electrolyte imbalances constitute essential medical care for cholangitis.

Vitamin K or fresh frozen plasma (FFP) may be used for correction of coagulopathy, when needed.

Note the following:

  • High biliary pressures caused by an obstruction may impair the biliary secretion of antibiotics; therefore, treatment may require decompression and drainage of the biliary system.

  • For patients with severe cholangitis, endoscopic drainage (using a stent or endoscopic nasobiliary drain [ENBD]) has replaced emergency surgical common duct exploration and T-tube drainage as standard treatment. Data from a metaanalysis indicate that ENBD may cause fewer perioperative complications (eg, preoperative cholangitis rate, postoperative pancreatic fistula rate) than endoscopic biliary stenting (EBS) in patients with malignant biliary obstruction.[9] However, a limitation of the metaanalysis was that there were no data from randomized controlled trials.

  • Percutaneous transhepatic biliary drainage (PTBD) is another possible nonsurgical method of biliary drainage.

Consider maintenance therapy/antibiotics (ie, sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim [SMZ-TMP] or a fluoroquinolone) for patients with recurrent cholangitis.


Obtain consultations with the following specialists in a timely manner:

  • Gastroenterologists

  • Surgeons

  • Radiologists


It has been reported that prophylactic antibiotics do not prevent endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)-induced cholangitis significantly in unselected patients, and these agents should not be routinely recommended for this reason.[10]

Surgical Care

Endoscopic or percutaneous biliary drainage and decompression have usually replaced surgery as the initial treatment of severe cholangitis. Surgical decompression is appropriate for patients in whom endoscopic or transhepatic drainage is unsuccessful or unavailable.

Following adequate biliary drainage and decompression for acute cholangitis with bacteremia, Park et al found no significant differences in the recurrence of acute cholangitis and 30-day mortality between early switch to oral antibiotic therapy and standard 10-day intravenous antibiotic therapy.[11]

Definitive management depends on the underlying cause (eg, removal of common bile duct stones, resection of tumor, excision of choledochal cyst). Cholangitis, however, must be controlled before the patient undergoes operative intervention. In the case of an unresectable cancer, definitive palliation can be achieved with placement of self-expandable metal stents (SEMS) which remain patent over a long period (eg, plastic stents).  


Patients should take nothing by mouth in the acute stage of cholangitis. Accomplish hydration with intravenous fluids.



Medication Summary

Possible antibiotic treatments include penicillin derivatives (eg, piperacillin) or a second- or third-generation cephalosporin (eg, ceftazidime) for gram-negative coverage, ampicillin for gram-positive coverage, and metronidazole for anaerobic coverage. Some researchers have reported use of fluoroquinolones (eg, ciprofloxacin, levofloxacin) as effective therapy.

The selection and dosing of appropriate antibiotics and other medications listed below or from another source must be performed by the patient's primary physician and gastroenterologist based on history and clinical presentation.


Class Summary

Initial empiric antimicrobial therapy must be comprehensive and should cover both aerobic and anaerobic gram-negative organisms.

Piperacillin (Pipracil)

Inhibits biosynthesis of cell wall mucopeptides and the stage of active multiplication; has antipseudomonal activity.

Ceftazidime (Ceptaz, Fortaz, Tazidime)

Third-generation cephalosporin with broad-spectrum, gram-negative activity; lower efficacy against gram-positive organisms; higher efficacy against resistant organisms. Arrests bacterial growth by binding to one or more penicillin-binding proteins.

Ampicillin (Marcillin, Omnipen, Polycillin, Principen)

Bactericidal activity against susceptible organisms.

Metronidazole (Flagyl)

Imidazole ring-based antibiotic active against various anaerobic bacteria and protozoa.

Ciprofloxacin (Cipro)

Fluoroquinolone with activity against Pseudomonas species, streptococci, MRSA, Staphylococcus epidermidis, and most gram-negative organisms but no activity against anaerobes. Inhibits bacterial DNA synthesis and, consequently, growth.

Levofloxacin (Levaquin)

For pseudomonal infections and infections due to multidrug-resistant gram-negative organisms.


Class Summary

Vitamin K or fresh frozen plasma (FFP) may be used for correction of coagulopathy when needed.

Phytonadione (AquaMEPHYTON, Konakion, Mephyton)

Promotes liver synthesis of clotting factors that in turn inhibit warfarin effects.

Fresh frozen plasma (FFP)

Plasma is the fluid compartment of blood containing the soluble clotting factors. Indications for using FFP include bleeding in patients with congenital coagulation defects and multiple coagulation factor deficiencies (severe liver disease).