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Understanding Autoimmune Liver Diseases

Have you or someone you know been diagnosed with an autoimmune liver disease? If so, you’re hardly alone. The National Institutes of Health estimates that more than 23 million Americans are living with a type of autoimmune disease, and some experts place that figure much higher.

A diagnosis of autoimmune liver disease can refer to one or more conditions in which the body’s own immune system attacks the liver, causing chronic inflammation that can eventually lead to serious damage and complications. No one knows for sure what causes these conditions, although some researchers believe environmental factors combined with genetic predisposition may trigger the body’s autoimmune response.

There’s currently no cure for autoimmune liver diseases, but it’s important to seek treatment to prevent further liver damage. The team of liver disease specialists at Tampa General Hospital’s Liver Disease and Hepatology Program stands ready to help. We offer a variety of medical services for patients with an autoimmune liver disease, including liver transplants. In fact, TGH’s Transplant Institute is one of the busiest transplant centers in the nation, and our specialists have broad experience in treating some of the most complex cases of chronic liver disease. As a result, we’re able to provide better outcomes and quality of care than lower-volume treatment centers. If you’d like to discuss your autoimmune liver disease with a member of our team, call 1-800-505-7769. Although professional referrals are welcome, you don’t need one to speak with a TGH physician or to seek a second opinion.

Types of Autoimmune Liver Disease

Generally speaking, there are three types of autoimmune liver disease. Here’s a brief overview of each:

Autoimmune Hepatitis

There are two types of this condition, which occurs when the body’s immune system takes aim at healthy liver cells. This causes ongoing inflammation that, if left untreated, can lead to liver scarring (cirrhosis) and eventually liver failure. Type 1, which can occur at any age, is the most common form of the disease, while Type 2 is a condition more often diagnosed in children and young people. Both types of autoimmune hepatitis occur more often in women and girls, though men and boys can also develop the disease.

Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC)

This condition occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the bile ducts, which may be inside or outside the liver. These ducts carry bile – a fluid that aids in digestion – from the liver to the small intestines. PSC can lead to inflammation and scarring (fibrosis) within the bile ducts, causing them to harden and narrow. This can interfere with their ability to carry bile. Without treatment, PSC can lead to recurring liver infections, tumors and eventually even liver failure.

Primary Biliary Cholangitis (PBC)

This condition, also known as primary biliary cirrhosis, is similar to PSC, except only the small bile ducts inside the liver are affected. Patients with this condition are susceptible to cirrhosis as a result of bile backing up into the liver.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Many people in the early stages of autoimmune liver disease experience few, if any, noticeable symptoms. Some common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Itchy skin
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
  • Skin rashes
  • Dry eyes and mouth

There are a variety of diagnostic tests, including blood tests and biopsy, that doctors may perform when autoimmune liver disease is suspected. Fibroscan®, a quick and painless test available at Tampa General, can determine the degree of liver scarring and steatosis (liver fat) within 10-15 minutes. It’s one of many valuable tools our in-house team of hepatologists uses to monitor serious liver conditions, including autoimmune liver disease. Fibroscan® is covered by most insurance plans, and it’s also available at an affordable cost for self-pay patients.

If you’ve been diagnosed with autoimmune liver disease, your treatment is likely to include medications to control the body’s immune response and help slow disease progression. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to ease symptoms, such as itchy skin and dry eyes. In some cases, if medications are not effective or liver damage is severe, a liver transplant may be needed.

Tampa General is committed to providing compassionate care for individuals coping with liver disease. To learn more about our services, call 1-800-505-7769 today, or click here to use our convenient, online Physician Finder tool.