Acute Hepatic Porphyrias: “Purple Flags”—Clinical Features That Should Prompt Specific Diagnostic Testing

Karl E. Anderson, Robert J. Desnick, M. Felicity Stewart, Paolo Ventura, Herbert L. Bonkovsky

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Background: Porphyrias are a group of rare diseases leading to dysregulation in heme biosynthesis and the accumulation of heme precursors, including porphyrinogens, which in their oxidized states [porphyrins] are reddish or purple. Acute hepatic porphyrias (AHP) comprise four diseases that cause acute debilitating neurovisceral attacks. Despite diagnostic advances, AHP is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed due to a lack of disease awareness, low clinical suspicion, variable presentation, and nonspecific symptoms that mimic more common diseases. Delays in diagnosis and treatment increase the risk of serious acute and chronic complications. Methods: In order to assess whether symptoms alone or in combination might be utilized as important indicators or “purple flags” that, when present, should alert clinicians to suspect AHP and pursue specific diagnostic testing, we conducted a comprehensive review of the literature on AHP, including cohort studies and case reports over two epochs, from 1980 to 2006 and from 2012 to 2018. Results: We found that severe abdominal pain, with or without acute central nervous system manifestations and peripheral neuropathy, continues to be the most frequent symptom. Hyponatremia, change in urine color, and certain chronic symptoms were also identified as features that should raise suspicion of AHP. To improve diagnosis of AHP, clinicians need to take a broad perspective, including demographic data and medical history, into consideration. Conclusions: The clinical features of AHP continue to be severe pain, especially pain in the abdomen. Other features that should raise suspicion are autonomic, peripheral, or central neuropathies, hyponatremia, and red-purple urine color.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of the Medical Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • 5-aminolevulinic acid
  • Acute hepatic porphyria
  • Acute intermittent porphyria
  • Laboratory diagnosis
  • Porphobilinogen
  • Porphyrinogens
  • Porphyrins

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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