What is Autoimmune Hepatitis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2018
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Autoimmune hepatitis is a chronic inflammation of the liver caused by a malfunction of the immune system which causes the body to start attacking liver cells. This chronic form of hepatitis tends to develop slowly, and patients may not be diagnosed until the condition has progressed to the point of jaundice and liver damage. There are several treatments available for patients with autoimmune hepatitis, with the prognosis being greatly improved by early intervention.

This condition has been linked with certain infections, medications, genetic conditions, and other autoimmune disorders. It appears to be more common in women, typically appearing in adulthood in the form of autoimmune hepatitis type one, with a rarer form known as type two appearing in children. In some cases, there is no clear cause for a patient's autoimmune hepatitis.

In the early stages of this disease, as the body starts to attack liver cells, they become inflamed. The patient may experience some abdominal pain, which will escalate over time to include fatigue, itching, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, dark urine, pale stools, and formations known as angiomas on the abdomen. Patients can also develop jaundice, a sign that the liver is extremely stressed, and if the condition is not treated, cirrhosis and liver failure will develop. People with autoimmune hepatitis are also at risk of liver cancer, because cirrhosis is one of the leading causes of liver cancer.


A doctor can diagnose liver problems with the assistance of bloodwork which identifies abnormalities in liver function. For a reliable diagnosis, the doctor may request additional bloodwork to look for tell-tale signs that the immune system is not functioning normally, and medical imaging studies may be used to look at the liver. Liver biopsies can also provide useful information.

The condition is treated with corticosteroids and other drugs which are designed to control the immune system so that it will stop attacking the liver. The patient may also make dietary changes which support the liver, such as not drinking alcohol to avoid stressing this organ. In cases where patients have experienced severe liver damage, a liver transplant may be recommended.

Because autoimmune hepatitis can be associated with other autoimmune diseases and complications, patients should be aware that even if this condition is resolved, they may have other medical issues. A diagnosis of autoimmune hepatitis usually means that the patient will be making regular visits to the doctor for life to monitor the body for any early signs of complications and other issues.



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