The autoimmune system normally works to help the body stay healthy by attacking any foreign material like viruses or bacteria. Sometimes that system malfunctions and the autoimmune system winds up attacking the very body it is supposed to protect.
With autoimmune hepatitis, the liver is attacked. Unfortunately the cause for autoimmune hepatitis remains unknown. What is known is that symptoms get worse over time if left untreated. In worse-case scenarios, a patient will need a liver transplant. The bad news is that autoimmune hepatitis is incurable. The good news is that it is treatable when caught early enough.
There are two types of autoimmune hepatitis but they both have the same symptoms. Symptoms often start very suddenly and get worse.
Symptoms include yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes; incredible fatigue; abdominal pain; pain in the joints like the hands and hips; skin rashes; passing dark colored urine; loss of appetite and sudden cessation of menstrual periods in women.
Patients often do not have any symptoms in the earliest stages of autoimmune hepatitis. When they do feel symptoms, treatment needs to begin right away.
Autoimmune hepatitis is strongly associated with antibodies known to target the smooth muscle. These antibodies were originally designed to attack viruses, but they are “corrupted” by genetic defects which result in the attacks on healthy tissue. The exact genes behind autoimmune hepatitis haven’t been discovered just yet, but they do seem to suggest that genes involved in other autoimmune diseases, such as systemic eryathamosus lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, are important in the development of autoimmune hepatitis.
Although persons with autoimmune hepatitis do not seem to have unusual viral loads, they do display symptoms very similar to viral hepatitis. This has led many doctors to believe that autoimmune hepatitis is actually a reaction to an infection that has not been detected or has already passed. However, there is no specific cause that the majority of medical experts agree can be deemed as the source of autoimmune hepatitis.
Patients may need blood tests and a liver biopsy in order to get a proper diagnosis. Treatment is to stop or slow down damage to the liver.
Treatment consists of medications like corticosteroids and drugs like azathioprine that slow down or stop the body’s autoimmune system. Patients need to stay on medications anywhere from 18 months to the rest of their lives. These drugs often cause problematical side effects, but they are better than having to get a liver transplant.
If the liver has been damaged too badly then a liver transplant is the only thing that will keep a patient alive.
While it has no known cause, autoimmune hepatitis is associated with certain behaviors. Doctors have known for years that smokers tend to have higher rates of autoimmune hepatitis than individuals who do not. Another major finding is that people with autoimmune hepatitis appear to show lower levels of vitamin A, an essential nutrient for liver health. Thus, persons with adequate vitamin A levels are much less likely to develop this disease.
Another major factor in the prevention of autoimmune hepatitis is exposure to sunlight. People living in the northeastern United States have the highest rates of autoimmune hepatitis, while those in the southwest have the lowest levels. This is very consistent with exposure to sunlight as the northeast tends to have the lowest levels of sunlight all year while the southwest has the most. The overall health of the liver is important in preventing autoimmune hepatitis as well. Consuming less alcohol and putting less stress on the liver appears to have a modulating effect.