What is Autoimmune Hepatitis?
Autoimmune hepatitis is a chronic inflammation of the liver caused by the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacking healthy liver cells. Left untreated, the condition can lead to impaired liver functioning, cirrhosis of the liver, and even liver failure.
Autoimmune hepatitis is a rare, chronic condition affecting one in every 100,000 people. Fortunately, if the disease is diagnosed early it can be managed with immunosuppressant drugs and other treatments.
Types of Autoimmune Hepatitis
There are two categories of autoimmune hepatitis. In each type, the immune system produces different antibodies that mistakenly target liver cells (autoantibodies).
- Type 1 autoimmune hepatitis: This type of hepatitis can occur at any age, but is usually found in adults or adolescents. Around half of the people with type 1 have other autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, or ulcerative colitis. It is the most common type of autoimmune hepatitis.
- Type 2 autoimmune hepatitis: Type 2 is diagnosed more often in children. It is less common, and can be harder to treat. The condition may also develop alongside another autoimmune disease.
Signs & Symptoms of Autoimmune Hepatitis
The signs of autoimmune hepatitis differ from person to person. Initially, you may have no symptoms. Autoimmune hepatitis flare-up symptoms can appear rapidly or develop gradually over time.
Autoimmune hepatitis symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Jaundice (the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
- Itchy skin
- Skin rashes
- Joint pain
- Spiderlike blood vessels on the skin
- Dark-colored urine
- Light-colored stools
- Loss of menstruation
- Enlarged liver
Many of these symptoms of autoimmune hepatitis may be caused by cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)—a complication of the disease. Contact a liver disease expert at NewYork-Presbyterian if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. They can investigate the cause and develop a treatment plan.
What Causes Autoimmune Hepatitis?
The exact cause of autoimmune hepatitis is unknown. Researchers believe the cause of autoimmune hepatitis could be a mixture of:
- Genetic factors
- Environmental factors
- Exposure to certain viruses
- Taking certain drugs, including minocycline, nitrofurantoin, hydralazine, methyldopa, statins, fenofibrate, alpha and beta interferon, infliximab, and etanercept.
Even though the exact cause of autoimmune hepatitis is unknown, there are risk factors that can raise your chances of developing the disease.
Risk factors of autoimmune hepatitis include:
- Being female. Women are more likely to have autoimmune hepatitis than men.
- Family genetics. If you have a close family member with autoimmune hepatitis, you may have a predisposition for the disease.
- Infections. Autoimmune hepatitis has been linked to having certain infections, including herpes simplex virus (HSV), Epstein-Barr virus, the measles, or hepatitis A, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C.
- Autoimmune conditions. People with autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, or thyroid disease, are at higher risk of developing autoimmune hepatitis.
Left untreated, autoimmune hepatitis can cause severe health complications, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver tissue). Cirrhosis and its complications can be life-threatening. Rapid onset of liver failure (acute liver failure) can also occur if there is a severe flare of autoimmune hepatitis.
Complications of autoimmune hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver can include:
- Esophageal varices. Enlarged veins develop in the esophagus, the tube that connects the throat and stomach. The varices can leak or rupture, causing a serious medical emergency with a high risk of death.
- Ascites. Untreated liver diseases can cause large amounts of fluid to accumulate in the stomach. Ascites is typically an advanced sign of cirrhosis.
- Liver cancer. There is an increased risk of liver cancer for people with cirrhosis.
- Liver failure. Advanced cirrhosis can lead to liver failure. At this stage, a liver transplant will be necessary.
Autoimmune hepatitis cannot be prevented. An early diagnosis is key to addressing symptoms and stopping future complications.
Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Autoimmune Hepatitis Care
The doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian have extensive experience in treating all forms of hepatitis and liver diseases, including autoimmune hepatitis. Our Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation provides top-notch care in one medical center. We’ll develop a treatment plan for your autoimmune hepatitis—to address your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Contact NewYork-Presbyterian today to get compassionate care for autoimmune hepatitis.