Cholangitis refers to infection of the biliary tracts. It is associated with high morbidity and mortality when left untreated, and therefore it is an important condition to recognise and understand.

It is caused by a combination of biliary outflow obstruction* and biliary infection. During an obstruction, stasis of fluid combined with elevated intraluminal pressure allows the bacterial colonisation to become pathological. A partial obstruction is more likely to cause cholangitis than a complete obstruction.

*In patients without outflow obstruction, a bacterial colonisation is unlikely to cause cholangitis

In this article, we shall look at the causes, clinical features and management of a patient with cholangitis.

Fig 1 - The biliary tree. A gallstone in the ampulla of Vater is a common cause of acute pancreatitis.

Fig 1 – The biliary tree. Obstruction and infection of the biliary tree results in cholangitis.


Any condition which causes occlusion of the biliary tree has the potential to cause cholangitis.

The most common causes are gallstones, ERCP (iatrogenic), and cholangiocarcinoma. Rarer causes include pancreatitis, primary sclerosing cholangitis, benign and malignant strictures, and parasitic infections.

The most common infective organisms implicated in cholangitis are Escherichia Coli (27%), Klebsiella species (16%), and Enterococcus (15%).

Clinical Features

Fig. 2 - The clinical features of Charcot's Triad: Jaundice, Fever, and Abdominal Pain

Fig. 2 – The clinical features of Charcot’s Triad: Jaundice, Fever, and RUQ Pain

The common presenting symptoms of cholangitis are right upper quadrant pain, fever, and jaundice (when bilirubin >50 μmol/L). Together, these symptoms form Charcots triad (seen in 20% of cholangitis patients). The patient may also complain of pruritus (itching), as a result of bile accumulation.

The patient’s past medical history may include gallstones, recent biliary tract instrumentation (i.e. ERCP/cholecystectomy), or previous cholangitis. Medication including oral contraceptive pill and fibrates can increase the risk, and a lipid-rich diet may be indicative of gallstones (as a potential underlying cause).

On examination, pyrexia (90%), rigors, jaundice, right upper quadrant tenderness, confusion, hypotension, and tachycardia may be present.

Differential Diagnosis

Cholangitis is not a complete diagnosis, as there is nearly always an underlying cause that should be identified and treated.

The clinical features of cholangitis are very similar to other biliary pathologies. A biliary colic will present with a colicky RUQ pain yet without fever, leucocytosis, or jaundice. Cholecystitis will present with RUQ pain and fever yet jaundice will be absent.

Other causes of the acute abdomen must also be considered including diverticulitis (rarely a change in bowel habit is seen in cholangitis), appendicitis, and tubo-ovarian pathology.


Laboratory Tests

Routine bloods for the acute abdomen should be taken, paying close attention to the FBC (a leucocytosis is found in the vast majority of patients) and LFTs (showing a raised ALP ± cGT and a raised bilirubin, as a post-hepatic jaundice picture).

Blood cultures should always be taken in suspected cases, yet are only positive in 20% of cases. The best opportunity to obtain a positive blood culture is early, before the start of broad spectrum antibiotics.


An ultrasound scan of the biliary tract will show bile duct dilation. The common bile duct is usually less than 6mm in size (it may be greater in the elderly and those who have had previous cholecystectomy). Ultrasound may also demonstrate the presence of gallstones as an underlying cause.

The gold standard investigation for cholangitis is ERCP, as it is both diagnostic and therapeutic. However in many hospitals this will be second line to the most simple, non invasive option – ultrasound.

Fig 3 - ERCP showing an obstruction in the biliary tree, resulting in cholangitis.

Fig 3 – ERCP showing an obstruction in the biliary tree, resulting in cholangitis.


Immediate Management

Patients with cholangitis may present with sepsis, so should be managed promptly, appropriately and often in a higher level of care. Ensure IV access is gained with sufficient fluid resuscitation, with bloods and blood cultures taken early.

Broad spectrum IV antibiotic therapy should be instigated within the ‘golden hour’. Co-amoxiclav + metronidazole is reasonable combination, however always refer to local guidelines.

Definitive Management

The definitive management of cholangitis is via endoscopic biliary decompression, removing the cause of the blocked biliary tree. For patients who are deteriorating, this may need to be done earlier than those who are responding well to antibiotic therapy.

ERCP, with or without a spincterotomy and stenting should clear any obstruction. In patients who may be too sick to tolerate ERCP, percutaneous trans-hepatic cholangiograpy is the second line intervention.

In the long-term, patients may require a cholecystectomy if gallstones were the underlying cause. Any other cause for the cholangitis identified should also be managed as appropriate.

Complications of ERCP

  • Cholangitis
  • Pancreatitis (in 3-5% of patients)
  • Bleeding (more common when a spincterotomy is performed)
  • Perforation (a rare complication yet requires urgent surgical intervention if present)


The mortality of cholangitis is around 5-10% in those who are given antibiotic therapy. Early ERCP and early antibiotic therapy have both been found to improve patient outcomes.

Factors which increase the mortality rate include delayed diagnosis, liver failure, cirrhosis, CKD, hypotension, female gender, and >50yrs.

Further Reading

Sanders G et al., British Medical Journal

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