Autoimmune hepatitis is liver inflammation that occurs when your body’s immune system turns against liver cells. The exact cause of autoimmune hepatitis is unclear, but genetic and enviromental factors appear to interact over time in triggering the disease.
Untreated autoimmune hepatitis can lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and eventually to liver failure. When diagnosed and treated early, however, autoimmune hepatitis often can be controlled with drugs that suppress the immune system.
A liver transplant may be an option when autoimmune hepatitis doesn’t respond to drug treatments or in cases of advanced liver disease.
Autoimmune hepatitis Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of autoimmune hepatitis vary from person to person and may come on suddenly. Some people have few, if any, recognized problems in the early stages of the disease, whereas others experience signs and symptoms that may include:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
- An enlarged liver
- Abnormal blood vessels on the skin (spider angiomas)
- Skin rashes
- Joint pains
- Loss of menstrual periods
Autoimmune hepatitis Causes
Autoimmune hepatitis occurs when the body’s immune system, which ordinarily attacks viruses, bacteria and other pathogens, instead targets the liver. This attack on your liver can lead to chronic inflammation and serious damage to liver cells. Just why the body turns against itself is unclear, but researchers think autoimmune hepatitis could be caused by the interaction of genes controlling immune system function and exposure to particular viruses or drugs.
Types of autoimmune hepatitis
Doctors have identified two main forms of autoimmune hepatitis.
- Type 1 autoimmune hepatitis. This is the most common type of the disease. It can occur at any age. About half the people with type 1 autoimmune hepatitis have other autoimmune disorders, such as celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis.
- Type 2 autoimmune hepatitis. Although adults can develop type 2 autoimmune hepatitis, it’s most common in children and young people. Other autoimmune diseases may accompany this type of autoimmune hepatitis.
Factors that may increase your risk of autoimmune hepatitis include:
- Being female. Although both males and females can develop autoimmune hepatitis, the disease is more common in females.
- A history of certain infections. Autoimmune hepatitis may develop after you’re infected with the measles, herpes simplex or Epstein-Barr virus. The disease is also linked to hepatitis A, B or C infection.
- Heredity. Evidence suggests that a predisposition to autoimmune hepatitis may run in families.
- Having an autoimmune disease. People who already have an autoimmune disease, such as celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis or hyperthyroidism (Graves’ disease or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis), may be more likely to develop autoimmune hepatitis.
Tests and procedures used to diagnose autoimmune hepatitis include:
- Blood tests. Testing a sample of your blood for antibodies can distinguish autoimmune hepatitis from viral hepatitis and other conditions with similar symptoms. Antibody tests also help pinpoint the type of autoimmune hepatitis you have.
- Liver biopsy. Doctors perform a liver biopsy to confirm the diagnosis and to determine the degree and type of liver damage. During the procedure, a small amount of liver tissue is removed, using a thin needle that’s passed into your liver through a small incision in your skin. The sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Regardless of which type of autoimmune hepatitis you have, the goal of treatment is to slow or stop the immune system attack on your liver. This may help slow the progression of the disease. To meet this goal, you’ll need medications that lower immune system activity. The initial treatment is usually prednisone. A second medication, azathioprine (Azasan, Imuran), may be recommended in addition to prednisone.
Prednisone, especially when taken long term, can cause a wide range of serious side effects, including diabetes, thinning bones (osteoporosis), broken bones (osteonecrosis), high blood pressure, cataracts, glaucoma and weight gain.
Doctors typically prescribe prednisone at a high dose for about the first month of treatment. Then, to reduce the risk of side effects, they gradually reduce the dose over the next several months until reaching the lowest possible dose that controls the disease. Adding azathioprine also helps you avoid prednisone side effects.
Most people need to continue taking the prednisone for at least 18 to 24 months, and many remain on it for life. Although you may experience remission a few years after starting treatment, the disease often returns if the drug is discontinued.