Many individuals are aware of what hepatitis is, however, very few truly know or have even heard about autoimmune hepatitis. Autoimmune hepatitis is a chronic and long-lasting disease where the immune system attacks the liver and causes severe inflammation and damage to this vital organ.
This severe condition can be life-threatening if it is not detected early enough or treated, as it can lead to cirrhosis and even liver failure. Learn more now about this serious and uncommon autoimmune condition, its symptoms, and how it is treated.
What Is Autoimmune Hepatitis?
Autoimmune hepatitis occurs when the liver becomes inflamed due to the body’s immune system turning against and attacking liver cells.
While the exact cause of this disease remains unclear, it is believed genetic and environmental factors play a significant role as both appear to interact over time and trigger the disease. When autoimmune hepatitis is left untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver, and eventually to liver failure.
Fortunately, when this disease is diagnosed and treated early, it can be safely managed with medications that suppress the immune system and stop it from attacking healthy liver cells. If the patient’s body does not respond to medications and treatment or when liver disease has progressed to an advanced stage, a liver transplant is usually a patient’s best option for fighting against the disease.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms associated with autoimmune hepatitis can range from minor discomfort to severe and occur quite suddenly and quickly.
Some individuals have very few noticeable problems in the early stages of this illness, whereas other patients can experience a variety of symptoms.
These common symptoms include fatigue, abdominal discomfort, yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes known as jaundice, abnormal blood vessels on the skin called spider angiomas, skin rashes, joint pain, and, of course, an enlarged liver. Females who experience autoimmune hepatitis could also lose their menstrual cycle as well.
What Causes It?
As previously mentioned, autoimmune hepatitis occurs when the body’s immune system targets the liver and fights healthy cells, rather than viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens like it is supposed to.
This attack on the liver can lead to chronic inflammation and incredibly serious damage to the liver cells, which can lead to a whole host of problems for the patient. Unfortunately, why the body’s immune system attacks healthy liver cells and ultimately turns against the liver is unclear.
However, researchers believe this condition can be caused by the interaction of genes that control the immune system’s function and the body’s exposure to specific medications or viruses, therefore resulting in a triggered response of the body attacking the liver.
Types of Autoimmune Hepatitis
Doctors have identified two types of autoimmune hepatitis, formally known as Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 is the most common form of autoimmune hepatitis and can occur at any age.
Approximately half of the patients who have Type 1 also have other autoimmune conditions, such as celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or ulcerative colitis.
Type 2 autoimmune hepatitis is most commonly found in children and teenagers, as adults are less likely to develop it. Similar to Type 1, patients with Type 2 tend to also have other autoimmune diseases as well.
How to Treat It
Regardless of the type of autoimmune hepatitis an individual has, the predominant goal of treatment is to slow or completely stop the immune system from attacking the liver.
Treatment can help slow the disease’s progression through the use of medications that decrease the immune system’s activity.
Generally, treatment with prednisone is used initially, and doctors can use azathioprine in addition to prednisone. When medications do not work effectively to halt the progress of the disease or the patient develops irreversible scarring of the liver known as cirrhosis, or even liver failure, the only remaining option is a liver transplant.
Physicians prescribe prednisone at a high dose for the first month of treatment, and gradually reduce the dose over the next several months until the lowest possible dose can be used to control the condition.
This is due to the multitude of side effects prednisone can cause, such as diabetes, osteoporosis, osteonecrosis, high blood pressure, cataracts, glaucoma, and weight gain, especially when taken for an extensive period.
Adding azathioprine to the treatment plan could help the patient avoid the deplorable side effects of prednisone. A majority of patients will need to continue to take prednisone for eighteen to twenty-four months and may remain on it for the rest of their lives, as autoimmune hepatitis can return if the drug is not taken regularly.
Numerous factors can increase an individual’s risk of developing autoimmune hepatitis, such as being female, as although both genders can develop this condition, it is more common in women, and genetics research has indicated a predisposition for this disease may run in families.
If a patient has a history of certain infections, such as the measles, herpes simplex, or Epstein-Barr virus, they may develop autoimmune hepatitis after contracting one of these viruses, and autoimmune hepatitis has also been linked to hepatitis A, B, and C.
Finally, if a person has another autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, Graves’ disease, or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, they may be more likely to develop autoimmune hepatitis. To learn more about other autoimmune diseases that could lead to autoimmune hepatitis, check out Uncommon Autoimmune Diseases Everyone Should Be Aware Of.
Thankfully, with early detection and the right treatments, autoimmune hepatitis can be carefully controlled and managed, and allow the patient to live a healthy and full life once again.