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Liver cysts and abscesses

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Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find one of our health articles more useful.

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Liver cysts

Cystic lesions of the liver include:

  • Simple cysts.

  • Multiple cysts due to polycystic liver disease (PLD).

  • Neoplastic cysts.

  • Hydatid (echinococcal) cysts.

  • Abscesses.

Other cysts can occur in the liver region but these are separated from hepatic cysts because they involve the bile ducts. They include:

  • Ductal cysts.

  • Choledochal cysts: a congenital dilatation of part or whole of the common bile duct. See the separate Choledochal Cysts article.

  • Cysts related to Caroli's disease: Caroli's disease is the combination of cystic dilatation of the intrahepatic bile ducts and infantile polycystic kidney disease. It has autosomal recessive inheritance. It can present with fever, abdominal pain and recurrent attacks of cholangitis1 .


Hepatic cysts are usually asymptomatic and are often found incidentally. Therefore, it is difficult to predict the exact prevalence. A Norwegian study of a university hospital patient population using ultrasound found an incidence of 11.3% (12.5% females and 9.7% males). No patients were under the age of 402 .

Simple cysts3


These are thought to be congenital. Lined with biliary-type epithelium but cyst fluid does not contain bile. Because the fluid is continuously secreted, they reaccumulate after aspiration.


They are usually asymptomatic; they can cause right upper quadrant pain and bloating symptoms if large. If very large, they may be palpable abdominally. Rupture, torsion and jaundice caused by bile duct obstruction are rare.


Ultrasound, MRI and CT scanning can show cyst anatomy. LFTs may be mildly abnormal4 .


Options include awaiting spontaneous resolution or, if symptoms occur, aspiration/sclerotherapy. Laparoscopic or open fenestration may be more effective but are associated with a higher rate of morbidity and mortality4 .


Spontaneous resolution is the norm. Symptomatic cysts respond well to treatment.

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Polycystic liver disease5


Adult PLD is congenital and is usually associated with autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease with mutations in PRKCSH and SEC63 or PKD1 and PKD2 genes. A considerable amount of research has been done on the genetic defects involved.

Isolated PLD has a prevalence in the general population of 1 to 10 cases per 1,000,000 individuals5 . Due to the autosomal inheritance pattern of isolated PLD, males and females should be at equal risk. However, the female:male ratio is 6:1 due to higher oestrogen levels in females which has been shown to stimulate cyst production, resulting in females being more symptomatic and having more extensive experiences with PLD than males.


Kidney cysts usually occur before liver cysts and chronic kidney disease is common. However, PLD rarely leads to hepatic fibrosis and liver failure. Hepatomegaly and abdominal pain may be present. Cysts are usually first noticed during puberty. Rupture, haemorrhage and infection are rare.


Examination of the kidneys and renal function needs to be carried out. LFTs may be abnormal but liver failure is rare. Ultrasound, MRI and CT scanning will show multiple liver cysts.


This is only needed if symptoms occur. As with simple cysts, options include aspiration-sclerotherapy and deroofing. Liver transplantation is occasionally employed.


One study reported a recurrence rate after aspiration-sclerotherapy of 19%6 . Cyst infection can lead to an indolent course with a high risk of recurrence.

Neoplastic cysts

Hepatic cystic lesions were once thought to be relatively uncommon7 ; however, they are being diagnosed more frequently with the continued advancement and improved access of patients to cross-sectional imaging. Mucinous cystic neoplasm is a unique subset within the hepatic cyst differential and includes the subgroup of mucinous cystic neoplasm, also referred to as biliary cystadenomas (BCA) and cystadenocarcinomas (BCAC). BCAs and BCACs combined comprise less than 5% of all cystic liver diseases. Cystadenoma is the pre-malignant lesion.


Usually asymptomatic or vague symptoms including bloating, nausea and fullness can occur. Abdominal pain and biliary obstruction can result as they enlarge.


LFTs may be normal. Carbohydrate antigen (CA) 19-9 levels may be raised. This can also be measured in cyst fluid8 . Typical patterns may be seen on CT scanning. MRI and enhanced ultrasound can also be useful.


This is by resection. Despite complete resection, cystadenocarcinomas can recur9 .

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Hydatid (echinococcal) cysts


These are caused by infestation with the parasite Echinococcus granulosus - a tapeworm. Carnivores such as dogs and wolves act as definitive hosts. They pass out eggs with their stools which can then be ingested by sheep, cattle and humans. The egg larvae then invade the gastrointestinal tract and mesenteric vessels of these intermediate hosts and can pass to the liver. In the liver, the larvae grow and the hydatid cyst develops, producing daughter cysts. Other carnivores who eat the liver of the intermediate hosts can then become infected and adult worms can develop in their gastrointestinal tract. The parasite is found worldwide. Human infection most often occurs in those who raise sheep or cattle or who have contact with dogs10 .

Increased emigration of populations from endemic areas where prevalence rates are as high as 5-10% and the quiescent clinical course make accurate and timely diagnoses difficult11 . Following infection, cyst formation mainly occurs in the liver (70%).


Can be asymptomatic for many years or can present with pain and large right upper quadrant mass10 . Large cysts can rupture into the biliary tree (causing jaundice or cholangitis), through the diaphragm into the chest, or into the peritoneal cavity (causing anaphylactic shock). Secondary infection and hepatic abscesses can result from hydatid cyst rupture. Hydatid cysts may also form in the lungs and other organs12 .


Eosinophilia may be present. Echinococcal antibody titres are positive in about 80% of patients. False positives and false negatives can occur13 . A classic appearance may be seen on CT or MRI scanning (daughter cysts within a thick-walled main cavity)14 .


This is needed to prevent complications due to cyst growth and rupture. It uses chemotherapy with albendazole or mebendazole, percutaneous procedures and conventional surgery. For treatment details, see the separate Hydatid Disease article, which includes hydatid disease management.

Liver abscesses15

Liver abscesses are caused by bacterial, parasitic, or fungal organisms16 . In developed countries, pyogenic abscesses are the most common but worldwide, amoebae are the most common cause17 .


A large American study estimated the incidence to be 3.6 per 100,000 population. However, the incidence varies geographically and a study of Taiwanese patients reported an incidence of 17.6 per 100,000 population. A UK study of a hospital in Birmingham serving a multi-ethnic population of 500,000 identified 86 patients18 .


  • Pyogenic liver abscess19 :

    • This can be single or multiple. One study found that the right lobe was affected in 74% of cases, the left in 16% and both in 10%18 .

    • Most are secondary to infection originating in the abdomen (cholangitis secondary to stones or stricture or malignancy is the most common; diverticulitis, appendicitis, Crohn's disease, perforated peptic ulcer).

    • It may be iatrogenic secondary to liver biopsy or a blocked biliary stent.

    • Bacterial endocarditis and dental infection are other causes.

    • A French study could find no cause in 18.4% of cases20 .

    • It is more common in the immunocompromised.

    • The French study found that 17.5% of adults with liver abscesses had diabetes20 .

    • Liver cirrhosis is a strong risk factor21 .

    • Liver abscess is a complication of umbilical vein catheterisation in infants. In children and adolescents there is usually immune compromise or trauma.

    • It tends to be polymicrobial with Escherichia coli, Enterobacteriaceae, anaerobes, and other members of the gastrointestinal flora most frequently associated. Over the past 2 decades Klebsiella pneumoniae has been emerging as the predominant pathogen responsible for 50% to 88% of PLA in the Asian population and it has been reported with increasing frequency in South Africa, Europe, and the United States19 . Fungal (Candida spp. the most common) or opportunistic organisms are more likely if the patient is immunocompromised22 .

  • Amoebic liver abscess23 :

    • 12% of the world's population is chronically infected with Entamoeba histolytica24 . Infection occurs most commonly in tropical and subtropical areas and is more likely if there is poor sanitation and overcrowding.

    • Transmission is via the faecal-oral route. Amoebae invade intestinal mucosa and can gain access to the portal venous system.

    • E. histolytica causes amoebic colitis and dysentery but liver abscess is the most common extra-intestinal manifestation of infection24 .

    • Liver abscess can present without a preceding history of colitis. It can also present months to years after travel to an endemic area.

    • It affects the right lobe in 80%25 .


  • Multiple abscesses tend to present more acutely and single ones more indolently.

  • Right upper quadrant pain, tenderness, hepatomegaly, possible palpable mass.

  • Swinging fever.

  • Night sweats.

  • Nausea and vomiting.

  • Anorexia and weight loss.

  • Cough and dyspnoea due to diaphragmatic irritation.

  • Referred pain to the right shoulder.

  • Jaundice (studies have reported an incidence range between 6-29% of cases, citing aetiologies such as hepatic pressure from an abscess, cholestasis or parenchymal disease)26 .

  • Pyogenic liver abscesses can present as pyrexia of unknown origin (PUO) in some people who may not have right upper quadrant pain; pain is a prominent feature in amoebic liver abscess.

  • Check history for travel to an E. histolytica endemic area.

Differential diagnosis


  • Raised white cell count.

  • Raised erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR).

  • Mild normochromic normocytic anaemia.

  • Abnormal LFTs (raised alkaline phosphatase, low albumin, raised serum transaminases, raised bilirubin).

  • Blood culture is positive in 50%27 .

  • Stools can contain cysts or trophozoites of E. histolytica.

  • Serology should be carried out if E. histolytica is suspected.

  • Raised right hemidiaphragm on CXR. May be atelectasis or pleural effusion.

  • Ultrasonography can show abscess and also allow guided percutaneous aspiration and drainage. Aspirated fluid should be sent for culture and sensitivity. It also allows biliary tree examination.

  • CT scanning can show the abscess, allow guided aspiration and drainage and show other intra-abdominal abscesses or a possible cause such as diverticular disease, appendicitis, etc. It is good for the detection of small abscesses.

  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) can show the site and cause of biliary obstruction and allow stenting and drainage.

  • Investigation should always seek to determine the underlying cause.


  • Antibiotics:

    • Pyogenic liver abscess: the UK study reported the use of a third-generation cephalosporin plus an anti-anaerobic agent such as metronidazole as the most commonly used first-line treatment. A penicillin plus metronidazole were used second-line. Antibiotic resistance is an increasing problem. Factors likely to increase this risk include indwelling biliary stents, recurrent cholangitis and multiple courses of antibiotics. Treatment may be needed for up to 12 weeks and should be guided by the clinical picture, culture results, local microbiological advice and radiological monitoring18 .

    • Amoebic liver abscess: metronidazole is the treatment of choice. >90% of patients with amoebic liver abscess recover with this alone. Most patients show a response to treatment within 4 days 28 . A luminal agent such as diloxanide furoate should also be prescribed for 10 days to eliminate intestinal amoebae after the abscess has been successfully treated 29 .

    • Antifungal agents such as amphotericin are used if fungal abscess is suspected.

  • Drainage30 :

    • Most patients with pyogenic liver abscess and those with very large amoebic abscesses, may not recover with antibiotics alone and need drainage guided by ultrasonography or CT.

    • Percutaneous aspiration can be carried out for small abscesses although catheter drainage has become the standard of care. Larger abscesses may also need catheter drainage which is also CT- or ultrasound-guided. Drainage should also be carried out if there is impending rupture.

    • Open surgery may be necessary if the abscess has ruptured and there are signs of peritonitis, if the abscess is larger than 5 cm or multiloculated, or if there is a known abdominal pathology such as appendicitis.

  • Supportive measures:

    • Fluids

    • Nutrition

    • Pain relief


  • Overwhelming sepsis.

  • Rupture of the abscess into adjacent structures (pleural, peritoneal and pericardial spaces).

  • Secondary infection of amoebic liver abscesses.


  • Pyogenic liver abscess: advances in diagnostic and interventional radiology over the period of three decades have reduced the mortality rate from 9-80% to 5-30%31 . Factors that affect prognosis include presence of shock, acute kidney injury and acute respiratory failure32 .

  • Amoebic liver abscess: since the introduction of rapid diagnosis and effective medical treatment, mortality rates have fallen to <1%28 .

Further reading and references

  • Wang WJ, Tao Z, Wu HL; Etiology and clinical manifestations of bacterial liver abscess: A study of 102 cases. Medicine (Baltimore). 2018 Sep;97(38):e12326. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000012326.
  • Neill L, Edwards F, Collin SM, et al; Clinical characteristics and treatment outcomes in a cohort of patients with pyogenic and amoebic liver abscess. BMC Infect Dis. 2019 Jun 3;19(1):490. doi: 10.1186/s12879-019-4127-8.
  • Mavilia MG, Pakala T, Molina M, et al; Differentiating Cystic Liver Lesions: A Review of Imaging Modalities, Diagnosis and Management. J Clin Transl Hepatol. 2018 Jun 28;6(2):208-216. doi: 10.14218/JCTH.2017.00069. Epub 2018 Jan 5.
  1. Shenoy P, Zaki SA, Shanbag P, et al; Caroli's syndrome with autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease. Saudi J Kidney Dis Transpl. 2014 Jul-Aug;25(4):840-3.
  2. Larssen TB, Rorvik J, Hoff SR, et al; The occurrence of asymptomatic and symptomatic simple hepatic cysts. A prospective, hospital-based study. Clin Radiol. 2005 Sep;60(9):1026-9.
  3. Sporadic Hepatic Cysts; Transplant Pathology Internet Services, 2013
  4. Lantinga MA, Gevers TJ, Drenth JP; Evaluation of hepatic cystic lesions. World J Gastroenterol. 2013 Jun 21;19(23):3543-54. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v19.i23.3543.
  5. Kothadia JP, Kreitman K, Shah JM; Polycystic Liver Disease
  6. Long-Xian Z, Ai-Wu L, Hua-Dong Q, et al; Treatment of polycystic liver disease: a hypothesis, patient characteristics, short and long-term results. Ann Hepatol. 2013 Sep-Oct;12(5):782-90.
  7. Brittingham C, Tuma F; Hepatic Cystadenoma
  8. Chandrasinghe PC, Liyanage C, Deen KI, et al; Obstructive jaundice caused by a biliary mucinous cystadenoma in a woman: a case report. J Med Case Rep. 2013 Dec 30;7:278. doi: 10.1186/1752-1947-7-278.
  9. Li X, Zhang JL, Wang YH, et al; Hepatobiliary cystadenoma and cystadenocarcinoma: a single center experience. Tumori. 2013 Mar-Apr;99(2):261-5. doi: 10.1700/1283.14202.
  10. Zhang W, Ross AG, McManus DP; Mechanisms of immunity in hydatid disease: implications for vaccine development. J Immunol. 2008 Nov 15;181(10):6679-85.
  11. Pakala T, Molina M, Wu GY; Hepatic Echinococcal Cysts: A Review. J Clin Transl Hepatol. 2016 Mar 28;4(1):39-46. doi: 10.14218/JCTH.2015.00036. Epub 2016 Mar 15.
  12. Arora SK, Aggarwal A, Datta V; Giant primary cerebral hydatid cyst: A rare cause of childhood seizure. J Pediatr Neurosci. 2014 Jan;9(1):73-5. doi: 10.4103/1817-1745.131495.
  13. Zhang W, Wen H, Li J, et al; Immunology and immunodiagnosis of cystic echinococcosis: an update. Clin Dev Immunol. 2012;2012:101895. doi: 10.1155/2012/101895. Epub 2011 Dec 25.
  14. Marrone G, Crino' F, Caruso S, et al; Multidisciplinary imaging of liver hydatidosis. World J Gastroenterol. 2012 Apr 7;18(13):1438-47. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v18.i13.1438.
  15. Akhondi H, Sabih DE; Liver Abscess
  16. Ghosh S, Sharma S, Gadpayle AK, et al; Clinical, laboratory, and management profile in patients of liver abscess from northern India. J Trop Med. 2014;2014:142382. doi: 10.1155/2014/142382. Epub 2014 Jun 4.
  17. Giorgio A, Esposito V, Farella N, et al; Amebic liver abscesses: a new epidemiological trend in a non-endemic area? In Vivo. 2009 Nov-Dec;23(6):1027-30.
  18. Bosanko N et al; Presentations of pyogenic liver abscess in one UK centre over a 15-year period, J R Coll Physicians Edinb 2011; 41:13–7.
  19. Serraino C, Elia C, Bracco C, et al; Characteristics and management of pyogenic liver abscess: A European experience. Medicine (Baltimore). 2018 May;97(19):e0628. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000010628.
  20. Alkofer B, Dufay C, Parienti JJ, et al; Are pyogenic liver abscesses still a surgical concern? A Western experience. HPB Surg. 2012;2012:316013. doi: 10.1155/2012/316013. Epub 2012 Feb 19.
  21. Lin YT, Liu CJ, Chen TJ, et al; Pyogenic liver abscess as the initial manifestation of underlying hepatocellular carcinoma. Am J Med. 2011 Dec;124(12):1158-64. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2011.08.012.
  22. Tsai SH, Peng YJ, Wang NC; Pyomyositis with hepatic and perinephric abscesses caused by Candida albicans in a diabetic nephropathy patient. Am J Med Sci. 2006 May;331(5):292-4.
  23. Wang HH, Lin WR; Amebic Liver Abscess. N Engl J Med. 2018 Dec 6;379(23):2255. doi: 10.1056/NEJMicm1800360.
  24. Goswami A, Dadhich S, Bhargava N; Colonic involvement in amebic liver abscess: does site matter? Ann Gastroenterol. 2014;27(2):156-161.
  25. Jha AK, Das G, Maitra S, et al; Management of large amoebic liver abscess--a comparative study of needle aspiration and catheter drainage. J Indian Med Assoc. 2012 Jan;110(1):13-5.
  26. Singh V, Bhalla A, Sharma N, et al; Pathophysiology of jaundice in amoebic liver abscess. Am J Trop Med Hyg. 2008 Apr;78(4):556-9.
  27. Abbas MT, Khan FY, Muhsin SA, et al; Epidemiology, Clinical Features and Outcome of Liver Abscess: A single Reference Center Experience in Qatar. Oman Med J. 2014 Jul;29(4):260-3. doi: 10.5001/omj.2014.69.
  28. Anesi JA, Gluckman S; Amebic liver abscess. Clin Liver Dis (Hoboken). 2015 Aug 24;6(2):41-43. doi: 10.1002/cld.488. eCollection 2015 Aug.
  29. Fernandes H, D'Souza CR, Swethadri GK, et al; Ameboma of the colon with amebic liver abscess mimicking metastatic colon cancer. Indian J Pathol Microbiol. 2009 Apr-Jun;52(2):228-30.
  30. Singhal S, Changela K, Lane D, et al; Endoscopic ultrasound-guided hepatic and perihepatic abscess drainage: an evolving technique. Therap Adv Gastroenterol. 2014 Mar;7(2):93-8. doi: 10.1177/1756283X13506178.
  31. Heneghan HM, Healy NA, Martin ST, et al; Modern management of pyogenic hepatic abscess: a case series and review of the literature. BMC Res Notes. 2011 Mar 24;4:80. doi: 10.1186/1756-0500-4-80.
  32. Su YJ, Lai YC, Lin YC, et al; Treatment and prognosis of pyogenic liver abscess. Int J Emerg Med. 2010 Nov 5;3(4):381-4. doi: 10.1007/s12245-010-0232-6.

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