Autoimmune hepatitis is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the liver and can occur at any age. Type 1 autoimmune hepatitis is most common, accounting for 96% of cases in the U.S., and can target individuals with other autoimmune disorders, such as celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis. Type 2 autoimmune hepatitis is most common in children. Untreated autoimmune hepatitis can result in liver scarring (cirrhosis) or even liver failure.
Causes of Autoimmune Hepatitis
The underlying cause of autoimmune hepatitis is unclear, though many experts believe that it results from an environmental trigger in a genetically predisposed individual. This condition causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy liver cells instead of the viruses, bacteria and other pathogens it normally targets. This can result in serious damage to liver cells. Some prominent risk factors appear to be:
- Being female
- A history of certain infections, including measles, herpes simplex or Epstein-Barr virus
- Having autoimmune disease
Symptoms of Autoimmune Hepatitis
The signs of autoimmune hepatitis vary from person to person and often don’t appear at all during the early stages of the disease. When symptoms do appear, they can include:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- Skin rashes
- Joint pain
- An enlarged liver
- Abnormal blood vessels on the skin
If left untreated, autoimmune hepatitis can lead to enlarged veins in the esophagus, fluid in the abdomen, liver failure and liver cancer.
Diagnosing Autoimmune Hepatitis
The two main methods for diagnosing autoimmune hepatitis are blood tests and a liver biopsy. Blood tests can help distinguish autoimmune hepatitis from viral hepatitis and other conditions that produce similar symptoms. A liver biopsy can be used to confirm the diagnosis and determine the degree and type of liver damage.
Treatments for Autoimmune Hepatitis
Whether you’re suffering from Type 1 or Type 2 autoimmune hepatitis, the goal of treatment is to stop your immune system from attacking your liver. This can be accomplished through the use of medications that reduce immune system activity, such as prednisone. While remission may occur after a few years of treatment, the disease may return after treatment has stopped. If medications don’t prevent the disease from progressing, a liver transplant may be needed.
Tampa General Hospital’s liver disease and hepatology experts offer a variety of medical services for patients with autoimmune hepatitis, including liver transplants. In fact, TGH’s Transplant Institute is one of the busiest transplant centers in the nation, and we’re able to provide better outcomes and quality of care than lower-volume treatment centers.