Ascending or acute cholangitis is a potentially life-threatening bacterial infection of the biliary tree that stems from bile duct obstruction and ascension of bacteria from the intestinal tract. Principal symptoms include abdominal pain, fever, and jaundice, known as the Charcot's triad, but additional clinical signs, as well as imaging studies, are necessary to confirm the diagnosis.
Signs and symptoms of ascending cholangitis (also known as acute cholangitis) develop due to the obstruction of the biliary tree (by gallstones or choledocholithiasis, tumors or benign strictures are known as pathogenic mechanisms) and secondary bacterial colonization of the bile ducts from the gastrointestinal tract or the portal venous system  . As a result, bacteria are able to reproduce and proliferate in this tight environment (as bile is not capable of flushing them back into the duodenum along its pathway), causing an intense inflammatory reaction and symptoms of abdominal pain, jaundice and fever, known as the Charcot's triad   . Although this clinical entity was described more than 100 years ago, most recent guidelines have proposed the exclusion of abdominal pain from constitutive features of acute cholangitis, because of a rather low report rate by patients  . Indeed, the presence of a complete Charcot's triad ranges from 15.4–72.0%, which is why fever and jaundice remain the most important features . Ascending cholangitis is life-threatening, with mortality rates being 2.5-3.5%, but in the absence of an early diagnosis, dissemination of bacteria in the systemic circulation and sepsis can occur, in which case mortality rates rise to 84-100% without immediate initiation of directed therapy   . In fact, septic encephalopathy is seen in up to 9% of cholangitis patients and is manifested as loss of consciousness and shock in most severe cases  . Furthermore, some authors add hypotension and altered mental status to the Charcot triad's to form the Reynold's pentad, another diagnostic tool used to identify patients with ascending cholangitis  .
Acute deterioration of patients that present with jaundice and fever (as well as abdominal pain) must raise clinical suspicion of an inflammatory process in the biliary tree, especially if loss of consciousness or an altered mental state is also present . After obtaining a detailed patient history (if patients are unconscious, friends or family who bring the patient to the hospital can provide valuable information). Conducting a thorough physical examination and a complete laboratory workup is mandatory. A complete blood count (CBC) will almost always show leukocytosis , whereas inflammatory parameters - C-reactive protein (CRP), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), and fibrinogen will all be elevated depending on the duration and severity of the infection. Alkaline phosphatase (ALP), bilirubin, and pancreatic amylase levels may be elevated in severe cases . At the same time, blood cultures should be drawn, and they are likely to be positive in the majority of the cases . Bacterial pathogens that cause ascending cholangitis are principally gram-negative Enterobacteriaceae (Escherichia coli, Enterobacter spp, and Klebsiella spp), while gram-positive microorganisms (eg. Enterococcus sp) and anaerobes (Bacteroides spp, Clostridia, and Fusobacterium spp) are less common . On the other hand, imaging studies must be performed early on, including ultrasonography and computed tomography (CT), which is recommended as a first-line procedure . Multidetector CT (MDCT) has shown even greater specificity and sensitivity and should be performed whenever possible, while magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is also mentioned as a reliable method to diagnose the condition  .